Nowhere to Go

For any American citizen who was concerned over issues of human and civil rights, the state of morale and hope in the country during the 1890s was perhaps at its lowest ebb since the Civil War years. Little success had been achieved in gaining recognition of the rights of African Americans in political and social arenas. Many, including Tourgee were hinting that perhaps more radical forms of resistance and protest might be considered as a means for countering the violence and injustices weighing on an oppressed people. In response to a letter sent by Tourgee, John Edward Bruce wrote back to him in September 1891: The letter is lengthy, but it very accurately summarizes the state of affairs existing between the white and black citizens across the country at that time and the sense of despondency over it: (#5743) (audio?) …To whom, can the Negro look for protection when his home is invaded, his life threatened, his liberty abridged and his rights as a citizen denied? Certainly not to the Federal Government or to Congress, or to the Supreme Court, for each and all these branches of Government have tacitly refused to admit that Negroes have any rights which white men are bound to respect…Congress and every Republican President have dallied with the question affecting the status of my race as citizens of the Government which their labor helped to enrich, and their valor to perpetuate. Tell me if you will or can, how 8,000,000 Negroes may obtain justice and fair treatment from the 54,000,000 white people in this country who own the railroads, steamship, telegraph lines, manufacture and who own all the firearms and ammunition, in fact own everything worth having in this country? The Press with some notable exceptions is prejudiced against us and the white American church piously loves God and hates “niggers”…

…the Negro hating press and the Negro hating orators in and out of Congress…would play upon the passions of the white race, they would paint the picture in the blackest colors and so intensify feelings against us as a race for daring to strike for our liberties that I fear we would soon be exterminated…that we wouldn’t hanker after another such opportunity for a century at least…I am no pessimist, but I declare I wouldn’t give fifteen cents for all the Negroes left after they’d tried their hands at the uprising business…

…I don’t see any remedy for the condition which confronts us, nor how we can improve that condition by the shedding of blood or breaking of bones…You believe that your race would change its methods of dealing with my race, if my race would show some sign to indicate that it will retaliate when imposed upon. On this point we do not agree. Prejudice against the Negro is on the increase, it is more marked in Washington today than it was after the war. Private families are getting rid of Negro domestics – and supplying their places with Irish and German and French servants. In New York the leading hotels employ white waiters, chambermaids, cooks, coachmen, &c, why is this judge? The crop of domestics (black) in Virginia, Maryland and the farther southern states are just as competent, docile and industrious as ever, they are tractable and willing to adapt themselves to new conditions…and where they find good homes and fair wages in the north they make faithful and loyal servants…But blood is thicker than water. This is evidenced from year to year by the seeming desire on the part of Northern white men – former sutlers and camp followers in the Union Army to unite the Blue and the Gray, to shake hands across the bloody chasm, to apologise to the South for having humiliated it…These blue and gray advocates would be among the first of the rebel sympathizers in the north to come to the rescue of the white people of the south, in any contest in which the Negro was principal.

 You are right in the conviction that the crucial period for my race lies in the future and not in the past…With my limited ability I see many things which tell me the Negro will have a particularly hard row to hoe in this country in the years to come and that the sooner he “makes the spelling bee the sceptre of national power” the better it will be for his health in every way. I thank you judge, for this sentiment…

Letter, J.E. Bruce to Albion Winegar Tourgée, 1891-09-01. Courtesy of Chautauqua County Historical Society.