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Chesnutt in the Classroom

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The White and the Black

AFTER attending the Negro conference at Tuskegee, which has been fully described in your columns, I paid a visit to Atlanta University, of which institution I was the guest for several days. The contrast, in some respects, between Tuskegee and Atlanta was very striking. In the one, the busy note of industry was predominant; in the other, an air of scholastic quiet pervaded the grounds and the halls. Perhaps the weather, which was unusually cold for Atlanta, had some effect in restraining the natural exuberance of youth. The difference, it seemed to me, however, lay deeper. Atlanta avowedly stands for the higher education. If it be granted that the majority of the Negroes must work with their hands, like the majority of all other races, and that manual training will best prepare them to work effectively, it is none the less true that, abandoned as they are by the Southern whites, in church, in school and in social life, they need leaders along these lines-picked men and women, in whose training special stress has been laid upon the highest ideals of manhood and womanhood, upon culture of mind, character and manners. This school which is under the charge of New England people, has, in its externals, a completeness of detail which is not apparent in some other Southern schools. While there is nothing fine about it, nothing superfluous, there is a neatness and an attention to little things that makes bareness seem mere simplicity. The teaching force, which is mainly white, has been supplemented by the addition of several colored teachers, men and women of high culture, who do not lower the average. The most conspicuous of these is Dr. W. E. B. Dubois, whose studies in sociology have won him a wide reputation. The group of schools at Atlanta devoted to the education of colored youth have been a powerful lever for the elevation of this neglected race, and it is sincerely to be hoped that no zeal for other forms of training will lead them to suffer. The Negroes of the South need all sorts of training; the South is not able to give it unaided, even if those in power were willing to do so, and they are not over-enthusiastic. The North has a twofold interest: it insisted upon keeping the South in the Union; it has, therefore, a family interest. Another consideration is that under prevailing conditions in the South, many people of color will, in time, prefer to live at the North, and the better prepared they are for citizenship, the less difficulty will the North have in their assimilation. For instance, from the town of Wilmington, N. C., since the "revolution," as the white people call it, or the "massacre" according to the Negroes,-it was really both-over fifteen hundred of the best colored citizens have left the town. Most of these have sought homes farther North. It is a curious revival of ante-bellum conditions. The Negroes in the South are not yet free, and social odium at the North is deemed, by many, preferable to the same thing at the South, with oppressive and degrading legal enactments superadded.

I have said that the Southern Negro is not free. The same may be said of the Southern white man, for the laws which seek the separation of the races apply to him as well-but with a very material difference. Society is divided into horizontal strata, with the white man on top. One can endure, with considerable equanimity, restrictions which make him superior whether he will or no. The brunt of the separation falls upon the Negro, but the white man does not escape.

For instance, on leaving Washington, D.C., the capital of a nation, by the constitution of which all men are equal before the law one is confronted in the Southern Railway Depot with signs in the cars labelled respectively "White" and "Colored." The passenger is supposed to take his seat according to his complexion. If he does not he is sure to be called to order in a short time. The law, however, does not really become effective until the train has crossed the river into Virginia, the old-time mother of presidents and breeder of slaves. She has lost her first preŽminence; the existence of these laws shows with what tenacity she clings to the other. But, nevertheless, the American citizen, white or black, who has travelled all over the North and West, with only the private consciousness that his color affected his citizenship, is met at this gate to the Sunny South with a classification which puts a legal stamp upon the one as superior, upon the other as inferior. A white man is never allowed to forget that he is white; lest he forget, a large sign is fastened at either end of the car, keeping him constantly in mind of the fact. A colored man is not permitted to cherish any illusions as to equality; if he should endeavor for a moment, in his temporary isolation, to forget this fact and all it implies, that sign in large white letters keeps him sternly admonished of the fact that between him and mankind not of his own color, or some variety of it, there is a great gulf.

I could almost write a book about these laws, their variations, their applications and curious stories that one hears continually concerning them. When first adopted there was some pretence made of furnishing equal accommodations for the different classes of passengers; but as soon as the Supreme Court of the United States had affirmed the validity of this class of legislation, the pretence of equality was practically dropped. It could not be otherwise. With society thus divided, horizontally, the two classes of travellers were not equal in numbers, in appearance, in means or in any other way. Most of the colored travellers are poor, many of them uncouth and passively submissive to the inevitable. That they should be treated with equal courtesy or be given equal comfort and consideration would be contrary to human nature. The Negro coach is invariably the less comfortable of the two and the less ornate. It is always in the least desirable portion of the train. A colored passenger often does not know where he must sit. He is shifted around from compartment to compartment to suit the convenience of the traffic. The conductor of a train has the power of an autocrat. He nods his Jove-like head, corrugates his high Caucasian brow and the Negro seldom argues, because there is no use in doing so.

"How long," I asked a Virginia conductor, "has this Jim Crow car system been in operation?"

"Since last July," he answered.

"Does it work all right?"

"Oh, yes."

"Do the colored people object to it?"

No, they don't mind it. Some of them kicked a little at first-a nigger likes to show off, you know, put on a little airs; but I told'em it was the law, and they would have to submit, as I had to. Personally I don't mean to take any chances: I've been hauled up in court once, or threatened with it, for not enforcing the law. I'd put a white man out of the colored car as quick as I'd put a nigger out of this one."

"Do you ever," I asked, "have any difficulty about classifying people who are very near the line?

"Oh, yes, often."

"What do you do in a case of that kind?"

"I give the passenger the benefit of the doubt."

"That is, you treat him as a white man?"

"Certainly."

"But suppose you should find in the colored car a man who had a white face, but insisted that his descent entitled him to ride in that car: what would you do then?

"I'd let him stay there," replied the conductor, with unconcealed disgust, which seemed almost to include the questioner who could suppose such a case. "Anyone that is fool enough to rather be a nigger than a white man may have his choice. He could stay there till h-ll froze over for all I'd care."

This reminds me of an incident which happened recently, down in North Carolina, where the conductor had no doubt, but afterward wished he had. On passing through the white car he saw a dark woman sitting there, whom he promptly spotted as colored, and upon whom he pounced with the zeal of a newly promoted man.

"You will have," he said abruptly, "to go into the other car."

"Why so?"

No, they don't mind it. Some of them kicked a little at first-a nigger likes to show off, you know, put on a little airs; but I told'em it was the law, and they would have to submit, as I had to. Personally I don't mean to take any chances: I've been hauled up in court once, or threatened with it, for not enforcing the law. I'd put a white man out of the colored car as quick as I'd put a nigger out of this one."

"Do you ever," I asked, "have any difficulty about classifying people who are very near the line?

"Oh, yes, often."

"What do you do in a case of that kind?"

"I give the passenger the benefit of the doubt."

"That is, you treat him as a white man?"

"Certainly."

"But suppose you should find in the colored car a man who had a white face, but insisted that his descent entitled him to ride in that car: what would you do then?

"I'd let him stay there," replied the conductor, with unconcealed disgust, which seemed almost to include the questioner who could suppose such a case. "Anyone that is fool enough to rather be a nigger than a white man may have his choice. He could stay there till h-ll froze over for all I'd care."

This reminds me of an incident which happened recently, down in North Carolina, where the conductor had no doubt, but afterward wished he had. On passing through the white car he saw a dark woman sitting there, whom he promptly spotted as colored, and upon whom he pounced with the zeal of a newly promoted man.

"You will have," he said abruptly, "to go into the other car."

"Why so?"

"This car is for white people only."

"I am white."

The conductor smiled incredulously. He knew a Negro when he saw one. "Come on," he said: "my time is valuable. I'll have the porter bring your valise.

The woman submitted. At her destination her son, a palpably and aggressively white man, was at the station to meet her. Upon seeing his mother alight from the Negro car, assisted by a colored porter-conductors in the South, on railroad or street cars, seldom or never assist colored women-the son demanded an explanation, which, when forthcoming, elicited from him a flood of language not suitable for newspaper publication. The next day suit was brought against the railroad company for $25,000 damages. It is to be hoped that judgment may be recovered. The more expensive this odious class legislation, so inconsistent with free institutions, can be made, the sooner it will be ended.

The same system prevails everywhere. There are separate waiting-rooms at the railway stations. If there is any choice of location the Negro always gets the worst room, and it is seldom so well lighted or clean. The signs usually read: "Waiting Room for White People," "Waiting Room for Colored People." In a certain town in North Carolina they read: "Ladies' Waiting Room," "General Waiting Room." No people of color are admitted to the ladies' waiting room. A colored lady, if she enter the station at all, must wait in the general waiting room, where white men and colored men smoke freely. In Atlanta the signs read: "Colored Waiting Room," "Waiting Room for Ladies and Gentlemen." It must be borne in mind that in the South the terms "gentleman" and "lady" are reserved, so far as public use of them is concerned, exclusively for white people. As a rule, only a white woman who is entirely beneath consideration is ever referred to as a "woman." The amount of ingenuity which a Southern newspaper will exercise to speak well of a colored man-they often speak well of individuals--without calling him "Mr." is very curious to study. He is cheerfully dubbed "Bishop," or "Dr.," or "Rev.," or "Professor," but the little prefix "Mr." is reserved exclusively for gentlemen-i.e., white men. It is the stamp of Vere de Vere.

The separate system extends by law to schools, and by social custom to everything else. Two races who must live side by side are taught from infancy that they are essentially different and must not meet in any relation but that of master and servant, or superior and inferior. If the facts conformed always to the theory, the situation might be tolerable. But they are not even distinct races; the colored people certainly are not a distinct race. Many of the latter are persons of education and refinement, who have travelled at the north and in Europe, and who resent bitterly this attempt to degrade them permanently, by law, into a hopelessly inferior caste. That they are often silent proves nothing; they must live, or think they must, and the Negro who talks too much holds his life by uncertain tenure in the Southern States. Then, too, their self-respect prevents them from saying a great deal to outsiders. A man of color who is treated in the North as a citizen, in Europe as a gentleman, does not like to tell strangers that at home he is a pariah and an outcast.

Of the expense to society this system entails, I will not speak; it is easily imaginable. Of the loss to the colored people, who are thus thrown back upon themselves and Northern philanthropists for that leadership which would naturally, under healthful conditions, come in large part from the white people of the community, there is no room to speak. Of the jealousy, the distrust, the deep-seated hatred which such conditions inevitably tend to promote, the less said, perhaps, the better.

There are other things in the South, of which we read in the newspapers, which do not tend to promote good citizenship. There are many good men in that section who will tell you, with a glance over the shoulder to see that no one else is within hearing, that they quite agree with you that the lynchings and burnings and discriminating franchise laws are all wrong, and that the best people do not approve of them. But the best people are evidently not in control, and make no public expression of their disapproval. Let us hope that they may some time pluck up courage to do the right, and assume the leadership to which by character and culture they are entitled. It will be better for the South and for the Negro, who is a large part and perhaps the most distinctive part of the South, when the white man of the South has obtained his freedom.

I cannot close this article without some reflections suggested by a book recently published, The American Negro, by William Hannibal Thomas of Everett, Mass. Mr. Thomas has lived in Ohio, in Georgia, in South Carolina, and elsewhere. I have recently been in all these States, and find a universal disposition everywhere to let Massachusetts claim him; she is, perhaps, better able to bear the burden than any other State. This book, being in large degree unquotable, and, consisting, as it does, of five or six hundred pages of defamation of a race with which he admits close kinship, it is difficult to pick out particular passages. Suffice it to say that it denies the Negro intellect, character, and capacity for advancement. With my own eyes I have seen, upon revisiting places which I knew eighteen or twenty years ago, that the colored people are acquiring property, in large amounts. Most of it, so far, is in the shape of farms, homes and churches; too much of it, perhaps, is tied up in churches, where a smaller number of these would suffice, for, thrown back largely upon the churches for social life, there are too many splits and dissensions. By the same token, some of the preachers might be better employed. But that many of them are earnest, Godfearing men, working zealously for the uplifting of their people, and serving them with profit to their moral and religious life, I can give personal testimony. I can say frankly that I was agreeably surprised to find the progress that was apparent on every hand-in culture, in character, in the accumulation of property, and in the power of organization. The recent reaction against the Negro is traceable to this very fact. At each forward step the Negro comes in contact or competition with the white man at some new point. The result is a new friction, with a consequent ebullition of race prejudice.

Mr. Thomas's statements concerning the womanhood and the youth of his race, confute themselves by overstatement. I can truthfully say that during a month spent in the South, mainly among colored people, I found no evidence to support his views. The value of his book lies entirely in the character of the writer, his truthfulness, his judgment, and his means of observation; for it is backed up by no statistics.

Chesnutt, Charles W. "The White and the Black" Boston Evening Transcript. (Mar. 20, 1901): 13.