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The race problem in the South—Was the Fifteenth Amendment a mistake?

An address delivered at the national cemetery, Memphis, Tenn., Memorial day, 1889.

by Maj. T. B. Edgington.
Comrades of the Grand Army and Citizens:

We have met to decorate the graves of our comrades with flowers. We have come to beautify for one brief day the resting place of a small fragment of our nation's heroes, whom our mother earth so tenderly presses to her bosom, covered with this mantel of green. Small as this fragment of the Grand Army is that lies within these walls, yet it is twice as large as the white male population of this entire county capable of bearing arms. It is more than one-third the size of the grand army which Alexander the Great marched out with to conquer the world. [22]

The custom of floral decoration is one of great antiquity. When Troy fell, Aeneas with his Trojan band started on his tempestuous voyage to Italy, where he founded an empire which afterward ruled the world. Before reaching his destination his fleet halted for a time at Drepanum, in Sicily, where the tomb of his father, King Anchises, was located. He erected altars at the sepulcher and sacrificed to the gods, and among other things, Virgil says, ‘according to custom he scattered blooming flowers’ there. In ancient Rome the flower celebration, called the Floralia, occurred annually during the last three days of April. It was an occasion of great revelry.

Times have changed.

The American Floralia is fixed by law for the 30th day of May. During the first years of these floral decorations they were occasions for the outbursts of heartrending sorrow. In those days fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, sweethearts, widows, literally bathed the flowers in their tears. Time has wrought some changes. The weeds of wailing have been cast aside, and bleeding hearts have healed, and the real has somewhat taken the form of the ideal. It therefore becomes necessary that the celebration should respect and conform to these changes. What would have been appropriate for an address then would be out of place now.

Moreover, it can hardly be expected of one who participated with them in the struggle, when they were full of lusty life, to especially dwell on their heroic achievements.

To one thus situated it is more agreeable to hear, or imagine he hears, the voices that come from these graves as they are wafted to him on the breath of these flowers. Listening to these voices, many of which he recognizes as the voices of old comrades, it is more congenial to the speaker to endeavor to give a fair report of their words of hope or warning.

The politician's voice.

A comrade who occupies this stand on occasions like this, speaks for the dead as well as the living. There is no place more appropriate for the discussion of the patriotic purposes that animated our comrades than among their graves. For twenty-five years the noise and tumult of the politician has filled the land, and the voice of the soldier has been drowned. There is, fortunately, a lull at present in this bellowing among the windy politicians of the land, and the opportunity is now afforded us, comrades, for the first time, to calmly [23] reason together upon the fruits, not only of our hardships and privations in the field, but also upon the fruits of the sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of lives of our comrades. They gave up their lives that the freedom which was bequeathed to us by the fathers of the republic might be transmitted by us through our children to remote generations.

As we reason together, let us unite our voices with the voices that come from these tombs, and let us see what the harvest shall be from the blood and treasure that was poured during the war.

The first fruits of spring came in the shape of a restored Union and freedom for the slave. His shackles fell off and he came forth a free man. He then became invested with all the rights of a white man, including the right to vote. Nature reserves herself for autumn to yield the greatest abundance, when she fills to overflowing the granaries and storehouses. It is not of the spring crop or first fruits of this seed sowing that I wish to speak to you of. The past is secure. It is concerning the future or autumnal crop that I wish to address you.

The Southern whites.

The autumnal crop, or crop not yet harvested, does not come directly from the seeds sown in war. It comes rather from the tares and thistles that were sown by the politicians while you were off guard. If politicians have recklessly sown the wind, it will require timely vigilance to avoid a harvest of the whirlwind. The territory which was once dedicated to slavery became, as the result of the war, dedicated to freedom. Fifteen great States lie within this territory. It comprises the most genial and salubrious climate over which our flag floats. It is peopled by a brave and cultured people of the Caucasian race, who trace their lineage back to the early settlement of this continent by Europeans who sought in the New World the freedom that was denied them in the Old.

The ancestors of this people served under George Washington to secure the independence of this country. They served through the war of 1812, the Indian wars, the war with Mexico. The immigrant who came to our shores by way of Castle Garden or the Golden Gate avoided this slave-ridden section, because he refused to compete with slave labor. The consequence has been that the white people who inhabit the former slave territory are almost exclusively the descendants of the fathers of the republic. While the blood of our comrades has brought freedom to the slave, let us examine the question and see if the blood of our comrades has purchased any [24] corresponding blessings for the descendants of the Revolutionary heroes or to the Caucasian race which inhabits the late slave States.

In three, at least, of these States, the negroes outnumber the whites, and consequently they out-vote the whites in these States. If the ballot is free and the count is fair, and if blood is thicker than water, then the negroes will out-vote the whites and fill all places of honor and profit in the State, and will put the whites in subjection. The whites own nearly all the property and possess nearly all the intelligence. Race prejudice, however, is superior to the influences of both property and intelligence. Under this unrestrained domination of the colored race the property of the white man would pass away from him to the dominant class.

Three of a pesky kind.

During the brief period in which the negro race was dominant in politics, the issue of bonds in certain States became so oppressive that the land owners were fast becoming mere tenants of the State, and the tax-gatherer was his landlord. A little attention to statistics will show the wonderful fecundity of the negro race, and it will give us a timely warning of the dangers of the Ethiopian fetich.

Some twenty-five years ago an enterprising citizen of Memphis brought from Central Park, New York, a pair of English sparrows. The city is now filled with millions of the pesky little creatures, and they have driven out all the other birds. The birds of gay plumage and fine song are seen no more. Even the cuckoo returns not, and the mocking-bird is no longer heard in the trees that surround our dwellings and line our avenues.

Some twenty-five years ago an enterprising Englishman transported a pair of rabbits to Australia. Rabbits have become so numerous there that they devour the crops that are planted as soon as they begin to grow. They devour the grass even so that the sheep have nothing to subsist on. All the wisdom of the English people have been set at naught in the efforts to rid Australia of its rabbits. They imported the stoat and the weasel—carnivorous animals—which were known to feed on rabbits in other countries. But in Australia these little carpet-baggers have affiliated with the rabbits and live on terms of friendship with them, and for purposes of subsistence they have turned their attention industriously to Australian hen-roosts.

The negro in America is acquiring a distinction similar to the rabbit in Australia. No snakes have lived in Ireland since St. Patrick's [25] time. No rabbits had lived in Australia until the English recently imported them, and no negroes lived in America until the slave-traders brought them here before the Revolutionary war, and on down until the abolition of the slave trade in the year 1808. From the first colonization of this country on down to the date of the abolition of the slave trade, only about 300,000 negroes were imported, and none have been brought to our shores since. They increase in a geometrical ratio. The mind does not readily conceive how this ratio, with such small beginnings, could so soon reach such large results. A single dollar loaned for twenty years on the stipulation that at the end of each year the sum was to be doubled, and so on, would require a payment of over a million of dollars for the last payment. Population, in obedience to this law, attains vast proportions within a single century.

A prolific people.

The condition of slavery was not so favorable to the rapid propagation of the negro race as the condition of freedom has proven to be. There are those who believe that the negro in a state of freedom and self-dependence would share the fate of the Indian. Like the Indian, it was thought that he would gradually disappear from the face of the country as the whites multiplied. The reverse has proven to be the case, and the grave question confronts us: Will the white man disappear from the face of the country as the negro multiplies? In the month of August in 1619, a Dutch man-of-war sailed up the James river to the plantations, and sold twenty Africans at auction to the wealthier planters. They were made slaves for life, and thus the institution of slavery took its start in this country, although slavery was not established in the colonies until about a half a century afterward.

The total number of negroes in the United States in the year 1790 was 697,000. The census of one century later, which will be taken next year, in 1890, will show a negro population in this country of about ten millions. There were 6,580,000 in 1880. Under the more favorable conditions of freedom the negro population doubles itself about every twenty years. Under the impulse of a heavy foreign immigration the white race only doubles itself in this country about every thirty-five years. When we consider the increased ratio of propagation among the negroes over the whites, the results are positively startling. The dollar which was doubled each year for twenty years increased to over a million dollars. The twenty negroes whom the Dutch landed on the James river have increased now to about [26] ten millions. Fifty years hence this country will contain 60,000,000 of negroes.

The census of 1880 gave Mississippi a white population of 479,000 and a negro population of 650,000. It gave South Carolina a white population of 391,000 and a negro population of 604,000, or about two to one. It gave Louisiana 454,000 white population and 483,000 negro population. The census of 1890 will probably show that the negro population outnumbers the whites in Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Ten years later, or the year 9000, will find Virginia, Arkansas and North Carolina with a negro population that outnumbers the whites. Thus, in ten years hence, upon a free ballot and a fair count, we will find nine states of this Union ruled by its ex-slaves, its unlettered property-holders, while its intelligent property-holders will be in a hopeless minority.

‘Let us prove ourselves worthy.’

The white element of the South is almost exclusively AngloAmeri-can. The mother country encouraged and fostered slavery in her colonies, and the English colonists became slaveholders. The Teutonic and other elements did not settle in the slave States because they would not compete with slave labor. All forms of immigration of the white races South is deterred by negro competition. The Anglo-American race is not prolific. It increased by births in ten years, from 1870 to 1880, only 8 1/3 per cent. The black population, on the contrary, increased within the same period, 35 2-5 per cent. The descendants of our revolutionary sires, who founded this Government, will have practically changed places with their ex-slaves, unless these results are prevented by means that are unlawful or unless existing laws are changed.

Listen attentively for the faintest whisper that comes from these graves, and you will hear no syllable of approbation of this overthrow of the white race and the destruction of all its dearest aspirations and hopes. Let us prove ourselves worthy survivors of our brave and chivalrous comrades, and let us demand of the politicians that we shall have a voice in the settlement of these problems which were so hastily acted upon when the mad passions of the war were at fever heat. Let us unite our voices with the voices from these tombs, and thus united, let us demand of politicians of all parties that we shall formulate a basis of settlement of these questions, that shall be accepted and respected, and become a part of the platform of all political organizations, and speedily a part of the organic law of the land.


The right of suffrage a curse.

One class of politicians would disfranchise the negro altogether, while another would leave his rights stand as now fixed by the constitution. The better and more practical policy now lies between these extremes. Limitations should be placed on his exercise of the right of suffrage. The limitations on his right of suffrage should be of such a character as to remove the fear or apprehension of negro supremacy. The limitations should be so adjusted as to secure a responsible class of colored voters, whose character and standing will afford a guarantee that they will not conspire with the irresponsible and lawless white elements to seize on political power. The negro should be undisturbed in his equality before the law, and he should possess a sufficient hold on the right of suffrage to insure the protection of the interests of his race. His present mode of discharging his duties of an uncrowned king and ruler, has degraded rather than elevated him.

The right of suffrage has proved a curse to him, rather than a blessing. Any modification of his rights should be of such a character as to impress him with the dignity and honor of American citizenship. The right should be so limited and adjusted as to leave the white race dominant in every State in the Union. These results would be attained by limiting the right to vote among the negroes, and by making the office of voter, or suffragist, among them an elective office—an office that he holds, say for four years, by election of the whole body of the people, or by election of the colored people alone, if this course seems preferable. Thus no property or educational test or qualification is required. The end indicated could be attained by so adjusting and limiting his vote that it shall not exceed, say 5 or 10 per cent of the white vote, on any given question or issue.

Modify the famous Fifteenth.

The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States should be so modified as to admit of this limitation on negro suffrage. This limitation will produce a class of colored voters of a high order, who are directly accountable to their constituency for the manner in which they have discharged their trust. It will produce a class of voters who could not readily be bought by money or beverage; voters who have respect for the institution of marriage; voters who have a local habitation, and a name by which they could be identified at the polls; voters who would not habitually ask alms or [28] take tips; voters who would feel the disgrace of a conviction for crime; voters so self-respecting that they would not take the pauper's oath in a court of justice, for the mere purpose of evading the payment of the costs of litigation. By this limitation on suffrage the colored race will be relieved of the incubus of a power which, at present, it has not the ability to exercise. This limitation will furnish the race with a rallying point for instruction, with prizes for merit; with object-lessons for its elevation; with goals to be won by honest endeavor, scattered in profusion all along the humble pathway of its evolution.

It took centuries of freedom and culture to fit the small fraction of the white race that can now safely exercise the right of selfgov-ernment. It required the inspiration of a new country, a land where the seal of despotism was unknown. It required an atmosphere that was untainted by the breath of kings. The ex-slave was not fitted for the exercise of political power so soon as his shackles fell off. Moreover, the two races can never mix and become one; one or the other must rule. Under the enforced conditions of slavery, the black race was constantly becoming whiter. Under free conditions, the black race continually becomes blacker, and race prejudice deepens with the color of his skin. It expands with the development of his intellect, and strengthens with the increments of his political power. The man is color-blind who can see no race controversy.

The crime of the age.

There is an irrepressible conflict between white suffrage and negro suffrage. All dreams of dividing the colored vote are utopian. This vote is now, and always will be, a race vote. The negro never can attain to that position of superiority and self-abnegation that will permit his vote to ever become anything but a race vote. The enactment of negro suffrage was the great crime of the age. The guardian angel of our unfortunate country was sleeping when that foul deed was done. Any Republican who sincerely favors negro suffrage is the misguided victim of a maudlin philanthropy. Any Democrat who favors it, favors also the stealing of the ballot when it is deposited.

When the white race was conquering the Indian, and driving him out from his possessions and the land of his forefathers, this conduct of the white man was justified and defended on the ground that the Indian was not making the best use of his God-given advantages, and that his lands should be turned over to a superior progressive [29] race, which would work out for man his highest destiny. The conquering white race, from the first, acknowledged themselves the mere trustees for the highest development of man, when they were driving out the Indian and occupying his lands. They were a pious people, and they gave to their rapacity a nomenclature suited to their creeds. They have remorselessly driven the Indian from territory to territory, from reservation to reservation, until his fading race is compelled to take its last refuge among the inhospitable blizzards of our Northwestern border, among the mountain ranges that are covered with perpetual snow, in the desert valleys where it never rains, among the lava beds where volcanoes are slumbering.

It means white slavery.

The fairest portion of this land is now being taken from the white man, and turned over to the enfranchised slave. It is being turned over to the negro race, which has furnished no just claims to it, and given no assurance of its ability to govern it, or even to till the soil. Within the last half century Florida has passed through the hands of the white man from Seminole to Senegambian. Four of the original thirteen States are about to pass from the dominion of the descendants of the founders of this government into the dominion of their ex-slaves. The negro has never been able to confer the blessings of good government on its own race in Africa, or Hayti, or elsewhere. It can hardly be expected to govern the Caucasian race wisely and well.

The domination of the white race by the blacks simply means white slavery. The whites will never submit to it. The Anglo-American race in the South has been familiar with the chains of slavery for two centuries or more, but they have never worn those chains themselves, and never will. The negro is not a success as a tiller of the soil even. He has ruined it by his ignorant and reckless modes of its cultivation. He has felled the forests to permit underbrush to grow instead. The Indian left forests that were primeval and a soil that was virgin. In the hands of the negro the fields have been permitted to wash into irreclaimable gullies and ravines. Where once the undulating acres stretched away into a landscape of beauty and fertility, may now be found caverns so deep that whole villages, with all their cottages and churches and spires, may be hidden away in them.

The negro as a Destroyer.

The green fields of the olden time have given place to the horrid [30] outlines of a broken landscape. Lands have thus been ruined and abandoned, sufficient in area, under careful husbandry, to feed and clothe the entire population of the ex-slave States.

So extensive has the destruction of the old plantations become that the wolf even, that was banished from our soil a century ago, now returns to howl over the desolations of its tillage. These observations are not set down in malice, but for our admonition and instruction. They are intended to show that a race which has not yet learned even the arts of a common laborer, is not yet fitted for the prerogative of a sovereign. It is intended to unmask the hypocrisy of those who would justify the robbery of a land of primeval forests and a virgin soil from the Indian and the turning of it over for destruction to the negro. Under the supervision of the white man, these lands may be reclaimed, and under the undisputed dominion of the country by the white race, the negro can attain to a prosperity and happiness that would be impossible while competing with the white man in the race for political power.

The South will hold the key.

With the proper limitations on negro suffrage, all other race questions can well be left to future solution. We can then gravely turn our attention to a solution of those problems of anarchy or socialism, and the question of labor and capital, which engages the serious attention of all patriotic and thoughtful men. With the Anglo-American element once securely installed again in power in the late slave States, it will become a tower of strength to the nation in its struggle with socialism. The South will then hold the key to the situation, and will lead in the movement to rescue the country from anarchy. With the foundations of free institutions thus deeply laid in the South, under the guardianship of the descendants of the fathers of the republic, we can look for the late rebellious section to be the trusted champion of our government against the minions of socialism. It can be relied on to formulate a plan whereby we may bridge the gulf that lies between Lazarus and Dives, so that both may pass and repass in contentment and happiness.

The dread fetich.

The white race in the South has not only assimilated, but the pride of its traditions runs back to King's Mountain and Valley Forge and Yorktown. The colored race itself, under the tutelage of the white race, will be an element of strength in the coming socialistic [31] struggles. Thus the hand of Providence is dimly seen reaching kindly down to us through the ages that were made accursed by the institution of slavery, to lift us up to a higher plane of national life. The Anglo-American of the South was educated in the school of the Old Virginian, who always had his goods and chattels, lands and tenements on hand, unencumbered and unconveyed, when the sheriff would come around to levy and sell him out. His ancestors were the rulers of the country, in peace or war. With such a record, and with a pedigree reaching back to colonial times, and with a detestation for tricks and shams, he views with horror the prospects of educating his children in a school for instruction in the art of legerdemain. He fears, too, that at no distant day, that his children may fall a sacrifice to the Ethiopian fetich. The sight of its hideous outlines paralyzes his heart and brain. With its slimy folds encircling the statue of liberty, its shadow falls across his path in any direction he may turn. His lands have so depreciated in value under the influence of the fetich that they would not sell for as much as when his ancestors first obtained patents for them from the Government. One of the great dangers that are in store for the ex-slave States, is that race prejudice and passions among the colored people will be fomented and encouraged by white men through motives of interest, ambition and revenge.

A Gloomy prophecy.

During the war of the Revolution, one Simon Girty was a candidate for the position of colonel of a regiment of Ohio militia against William Crawford. Crawford was elected. Girty thereupon joined the band of Indians which afterwards captured Colonel Crawford and burned him at a stake. Girty turned a deaf ear to a white man's appeals to him. He even set the fagots ablaze that surrounded his victim, and otherwise surpassed his savage comrades in cruelty. The history of race conflict, coupled with a white man's perfidy, will repeat itself in the ex-slave States. When the conservative white leaders, around whose standards the negroes now rally, shall have passed away, and when their white allies shall be bound to them by the mutuality of fellowship, and not by the patronage of philanthropy as they now are, then we will descend to a condition of anarchy that on the one side will possess no culture or creed to mitigate its barbarity.

Race prejudice, ambition and revenge will do their perfect work. Some of the more apprehensive and timid are quietly selling their [32] lands and are seeking homes elsewhere. The South Carolinian, as he looks for the last time on the home of his ancestors, mournfully says:

One look, one last look, to the cots and the towers;
To the rows of our vines and the beds of our flowers;
To the church where the bones of our fathers decayed;
Where we fondly had hoped that our own should be laid.

The refugee from the Ethiopian fetich in Florida smites his breast as he exclaims:

Farewell to thy fountains, farewell to thy shades;
To the song of thy youth, the dance of thy maids.

The Louisiana and Mississippi planter, as he resolutely turns his steps towards the setting sun to seek a new home in the farther West, gives vent to the sad refrain:

Farewell and forever; the franchised ex-slave
May rule in the halls of the free and the brave.
Our hearths we abandon, our lands we resign,
But, Father, we kneel to no altar but Thine.

The white man must prevail.

Comrades, you face not now a line of glistening bayonets. You confront an impending destiny. Jonah-like you are looking into the open mouth of the Ethiopian fetich. Without a constitutional amendment, and upon a free ballot and a fair count, nine sovereign States within ten years, freighted with all the hopes and fears of our race, will be drawn into the belly of the fetich. Let us see to it that the ‘Lost Cause’ was not the cause of white supremacy, or of civilization, or the cause of Christianity itself. Let us see to it that no cause has been lost but the cause of human slavery and the right of secession. With these questions once settled on just and sure foundations, our surviving comrades can glide hopefully down the stream of time to their rest, while our comrades who sleep in the graves where America has laid them, can peacefully sleep on until the dawning of the morning of the resurrection.

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