"Make the spelling bee the sceptre of national power"


John Edward Bruce in his 1891 letter to Tourgee observed while slavery was gone, the attitudes and behaviors that allowed it to exist remained and continued to undermine efforts to establish justice and equality. The racism in America, reflected in the words of  Dixon and others like him at the turn of the twentieth century made it clear to Tourgee what was happening: the generations who had witnessed slavery and war were disappearing, and in their place, those who knew only of racial segregation and lynching were coming into positions of leadership and power – ominously changing the political direction of the nation. For Tourgee, Plessy v Ferguson embedded into law and into white American culture the idea that the races belonged apart. The words of Bruce written in 1891 could have well been written yesterday or today: 

…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”…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 apologize 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…

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

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