An Ex-Slaveholder's View of the Negro Question in the South

An former enslaver writes in 1900, expressing the view that slavery in the South improved the lives of enslaved people. This is a difficult text to read, because it includes many stereotypes about forcibly imported Africans and their subsequent lives in slavery. But it presents the perspective of a former enslaver for students to critically examine.
Colonel Robert Bingham
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concept 8.

Those who look at the matter only in a sentimental way may say that, although the negro, in the South survived, he survived as a slave and that existence in slavery is scarcely existence at all. But early in the Century there was a deep and strong movement among the slave owners against holding slaves; and but for the agitation inaugurated by the abolitionists, some scheme for the gradual emancipation of the negro would in all probability have been worked out, and this might have settled the negro question peaceably. My father thought of going to Ohio in the ’20s to be relieved of the burden and responsibility of slaves; but he found the condition of the African in the North West worse than in slavery. Everybody in the South knew that the condition of the ante-bellum free negro among us was worse than that of the slave, though the free negro had the right of suffrage in North Carolina till 1835. My father offered his nurse her freedom and support for a term of years in Liberia and she declined the offer. Many of the slaveholders in the South felt as my father did, and a bill for the gradual emancipation of the slaves failed to pass the Legislature of Virginia in the early ’30s by only one vote. 

It is safe to say that we of the South dealt more successfully with the negro up to ’65, when he was taken from our hands, than our race has ever dealt with any other race on the same soil since the dawn of history. He came into our hands from over seas, by the action of the people of New England chiefly, not by our own, as we did not own a single ship. He was a savage of a low type, and in some cases at least he was a cannibal. One of the most respectable and trustworthy negroes I know, a man of about 65, told me that his grandmother, who came direct from Africa, had told him as a boy that she had seen her people engaged in a cannibal feast before she was put on a ship and taken away from home. 

Under our treatment this savage was so developed in the arts of civilization in a little more than a century that he was deemed worthy by the people of the North to share with them in the citizenship of the Great Republic; and this boon, which was given by law to every adult negro male in the South, is still denied to illiterates of our own race in New England; and in this year of grace 1900 it has been denied to illiterate Brown men and Yellow men in the new Territory of Hawaii by act of a Republican Congress, approved by a Republican President. 

As the negro advanced so rapidly under our tutelage, it may be well for those whose ancestors united with ours in exterminating the Celt in England and the Red man in America, who have excluded the Yellow man, who have not succeeded with the Black man since they took charge of him in ’65 as well as we had done before ’65, and on whose success with the Brown man judgment must be suspended, it may be well for the people of the North to take our diagnosis of the case of the negro into careful consideration. 

This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p249901coll37/id/19129/rec/25.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    In what state could free African Americans vote until the mid-1830s?
    Free African Americans could vote in North Carolina until 1835.
  2. Question
    In the excerpt, “savagery” and “civilization” are pitted against one another. Underline both examples and consider the potential limitations of such a dichotomy.
    The dichotomy is savagery = cannibalism, civilization = citizenship. Some potential limitations: the construction of a false dichotomy, the construction of a hierarchy of “civilization,” the imposition of assumptions regarding society.
  3. Question
    Consider whether the author is upset or pleased with the abolition of slavery. Why is perspective important in this document?
    Answers will vary.
  4. Question
    Think of a moment in which your memory of a past event has evolved and changed with time.
    Answers will vary.
Reveal Answers
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