Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview

Chapter 13
FREE NEGROES

There was once a disastrous fire in Savannah, and donations for relief poured in including $100 from Elihu Embree, editor of the Emancipator at Jonesboro, Tennesee. When he discovered that a $10,000 donation from New York City had been returned because the donors requested that Negroes share in the relief funds, he expressed amazement that a righteous God had not "destroyed its [ Savannah's] proud inhabitants with fire unquenchable!" Said he: "I am truly ashamed that they are human beings, as this act of theirs disgraces human nature...we can not suppose that having given to all men rational and immortal minds God intended the difference of color in our species, either as the brand of slavery or the title to oppression; we rather view it as a providential trial to our hearts; to prove what is in us."1 Embree was talking about race prejudice, which is an outward expression of inherent meanness and stupidity. It was a great obstacle to emancipation.

Some people, as we shall see, sought to escape the presence of a permanent Negro minority in the United States by persuading them to move out of the country, but the organized effort known as colonization came too late to succeed. Too many free Negroes already had proved their ability to live creatively and usefully as free and independent citizens. They had done it under the most adverse circumstances, so that only the blind could fail to realize their vast potential capacity for achievement. Moreover, the movement to abolish slavery and to give equal justice and opportunity to the Negro had gone too far by 1817 to be halted by prejudice. Few persons who favored colonization were honestly opposed to slavery. Holding a person in slavery because of his color and driving him out of the country because of his color were both oppression based on a belief in racial inequality. Antislavery people rejected the philosophy and opposed the oppression.

The entire group of Pennsylvanians -- Franklin, Woolman, Benezet, and others -- spent more time, money and energy helping the free Negroes than in trying to persuade other people to free their slaves. The American Convention was composed of state organizations that did little more than assist slaves legally entitled to freedom and educate, train, and protect free Negroes. Franklin wanted a national program of that sort. Time after time slaveholders were urged to modify the system of slavery by some program of education, religious instruction, agricultural peonage, and so forth, and there can be no question but the full resources of the country could have been thrown into such a program at any time after the Revolution. Organized antislavery men and individuals always sought to ameliorate the condition of slaves, to protect the free Negro before the law, to raise his standard of living, to provide social justice.

There is, of course, a vast distinction, as we shall see, between political privileges, civil rights, and social justice. Avoiding all entanglement in a lengthy discussion of citizenship -- British, Colonial, and United States -- we can still make several statements of fact not open to successful refutation. Free Negroes, born in the colonies, were

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