LAKE MOHONK CONFERENCE ON THE NEGRO

 

June 4, 1890

Lake Mohonk, New York

 

Ladies and Gentlemen, - What was the thought, what are the facts, which led our good friends, Mr. and Mrs. Smiley, to invite us to meet in this Conference, on the Negro question, at their wonderfully attractive home? We do not need to go into a lengthy review of the past to find a sufficient answer to this question. Let the exact condition of the Negros in the United States - especially in that part of our country where they are a large part of our population - be fully known and thoroughly understood, and every good citizen, every friend of humanity, and, of course, every Christian, will surely be persuaded that the American people have a grave and indispensible duty to perform with respect to the millions of men and women among our countrymen whose ancestors our fathers brought from Africa to be held in bondage here in America. It may be justly said, in the deepest sense of the words, that we are indeed the keepers of “our brothers in black.” We are responsible for their presence and condition on this continent. Having deprived them of their labor, liberty, and manhood and grown rich and strong while doing it, we have no excuse for neglecting them, if our selfishness prompted us to do so. But, in truth, their welfare and ours, if not one and the same, are inseparable. These millions who have been so cruelly degraded must be lifted up, or we ourselves shall be dragged down. The eminent gentleman who is the general agent of the Peabody Education Fund, Dr. Curry, of Virginia, spoke wisely when he said to the legislature of Alabama: “As a man, a patriot, a Christian, I have labored for the elevation of the Negro. Nor have I been entirely unselfish; for I know that we are bound, hand and foot, to the lowest stratum of society. If the Negros remain as co-occupants of the land and co-citizens of the States, and we do not lift them up, they will drag us down to industrial bankruptcy, social degradation, and political corruption.

 

Upon the construction of the laws of the nation and the States, and upon their administration, the welfare of the Negros, like the welfare of their fellow-citizens, largely depends. This wide area of duty and of effort belongs to the domain of practical statesmanship, it will be explored, investigated, discussed and dealt with by those who make and execute the laws, State and National, by the public press, and by political parties. These agencies, guided by the sense of duty and supported by public opinion, we may hope will in the long run be adequate to the responsibilities devolved upon them. Our Mohonk Conference accepts the less conspicuous but hardly less grave and influential place of employing the forces which concern the educational, the benevolent, and the religious side of the question. We seek conscientiously to avoid what is sectarian or that smacks of partisanship or sectionalism. Political duties and political action, however vital in their appropriate sphere, should in this conference, it is believed, yield the floor to impartial investigation and earnest discussion of the best methods for uplifting the colored people in their industries, their home life, their education, their morality, their religion, and, in short, all that pertains to their personal conduct and character. What is sometimes called the social question with its bitterness, irritations, and the ill-will which it often breeds between the children of a common Father, may well be left out of associations like this until the Golden Rule, with its enlightenment and precious tendencies, has obtained a more perfect sway than it has yet found either in our own hearts or in the lives of those we are seeking to lift up. If we can, with harmony, prudence, and good sense, adhere to this course, we may expect to do something on this momentous subject toward forming and enlightening that public opinion which, in a land of free institutions, must be regarded as, under Providence, the final sovereign – as, in fact, the government.

 

With this view of the general aim and purpose of this Conference, we are met at the threshold with the question, “What are the true condition and prospects of the Negros of the South?” No full answer can be given to this inquiry without more careful and extensive investigations than can be attempted in this paper. We hear from various quarters statements which challenge serious and candid attention. In the Southern States are seven millions of colored people, of whom one-half are unable read or write; and illiteracy of their case, we are told, means far more than ignorance of letters. It means a condition, according to a high authority, “compounded of ignorance, superstition, shiftlessness, vulgarity and vice.” There may be gross exaggerations in the tales we hear of the Voodoo paganism, which under the name of religion, lurks, if it does not prevail, in the cotton and cane growing districts of the South known as the “black belt.” There is, however, enough of truth in these statements to call for investigation and action. One of the devoted friends of the colored people tells us that “their ignorance, indifference, indolence, shiftlessness, superstition, and low tone of morality are prodigious hindrances to the development of the great low country where they swarm.” It is, perhaps, safe to conclude that half of the colored population of the South still lack the thrift, the education, the morality, and the religion required to make a prosperous and intelligent citizenship.

 

How is this unpromising and deplorable condition to be met? What is the remedy? Those who meet here do so, I assume, in the faith of education and religion-using these words in the broadest sense,-if faithfully, wisely, and persistently brought home to these people, will be found   in good time amply adequate to lift the African up to the full stature of American manhood.

 

I have referred to the most unfavorable reports as to the condition of the Southern Negro which intelligent and fair-minded people are prepared to believe. There is another and far brighter side to this picture, and it is full of encouragement. A century or two ago the ancestors of the great majority of the present population of the United States were African barbarians and pagans of the lowest type. “They were simply savages practicing fetishism, the very lowest form of idolatry. They were the slaves of the most revolting kind of superstitions, believing in spells, charms, and incantations, and having no moral code.” They had no skill in any kind of labor, no industrious habits, and knew nothing of any printed or written language. This heathen people, brought from the Dark Continent, after several generations in bondage, followed by a few years of freedom have all of them learned to understand and speak the English language. All of them have been taught the first, the essential lesson in civilization: they can all earn their own living by their own labor. A very large number of them have been converted to Christianity. I do not include in this statement those who profess and practice a merely emotional religion, which does not purify morals, guide conduct, nor elevate character. Dr. Storrs said a few weeks ago: “And there an utter divorce appears (and that is the most fearful and almost fatal thing of all) between religion and morality among them, so that the same man shall be a fervent exhorter in the pulpit and even an adulterer or murderer outside of it,- an instance of which was brought to my attention of a friend at the South very lately, where a man had been a fervent preacher, admired for his eloquence, and had turned out afterward to be at the same time a brutal murderer, and was convicted of the horrible crime. Nevertheless, he had appeared to others, perhaps to himself, to be sincere in his exhortations. It is all summed up in the word of one man, preaching to a colored congregation, himself a colored man: “I have to confess, my dear brethren, that I have broken every commandment; but I bless the Lord that I never have lost my religion!”” Considered as a community, almost all of them are peaceable, orderly, and law-abiding. After only twenty-five years of freedom, one-third of them-perhaps more- are returned in the census as able to read and write. Not a few of them are scholars of fair attainments and ability, and in the learned professions and in conspicuous employments are vindicating their title to the consideration and respect of the best of their fellow-men.

 

I do not try to tell how much of this gratifying progress of the last twenty-five years is credited to the great fact of freedom. Liberty, it must be granted, is the most successful, the unmatched, the almost sublime educator of the human race. But other causes have been at work.  A long list could easily be made, reaching possibly to even more than a hundred, of enterprises and notable efforts by religious sects, by educational and benevolent associations, by philanthropic and patriotic individuals, having, in the words of Mr. John F. Slatter, for their “general object of uplifting the lately emancipated population of the Southern States.” All of them are or have been of necessity as to methods and appliances, experimental, each independent of the others and moving on its own peculiar lines without any thorough knowledge of what others were doing or attempting to do. It may prove one of the important features of this Conference that it will furnish an opportunity and a place where all engaged in the good work shall meet face-to-face, and freely communicate to each other their ideas, methods, successes and failures, and that valuable instruction and much needed encouragement will thus be imparted for the advancement of the good work.

 

At this juncture, to enlighten and create public sentiment for is support and continuance is the first necessity. This is more plainly to be seen now than hitherto. For some years past the Trustees of the Peabody Education Fund, under the distinguished leadership of their wise and venerable president, Mr. Robert C. Winthrop, have looked forward with confident hope to the time when the people of the United States, through the general government, would give their powerful aid to the education of the emancipated race for the duties of citizenship which have been cast upon them. No doubt, during several years a decided majority of both Houses of Congress, without regard to section or party, would have supported the measure if it could have been brought to a vote. The recent adverse action of the Senate admonishes us; however, we may no longer look with confidence for government aid. While we may hope for and strive for a better result in the future, it is the part of wisdom to waste no time in unavailing complaint or regret, but with earnest solicitude to make every judicious effort for the education and Christianizing of the Negro, not merely for his own sake or the sake of the South, but for the welfare of the whole county and for our common humanity. Our faith is that no sacrifice of comfort, health, and life, no humane effort, no money expended, was ever more plainly productive of large and gracious results than the money, the labor, and the sacrifices which have been devoted to the uplifting of the colored people of the South.

 

Our wish and our prayers are that the good work may go on. Hence this Mohonk Conference on the Negro Question.

 

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