Frederick Douglass and Richard T. Greener on the Negro Exodus, 1879
Citation Information: “Frederick Douglass and Richard T. Greener on the Negro Exodus, 1879.” From Herbert Aptheker, editor, A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States (New York, 1951), p. 724.
The Negro, long deemed to be too indolent and stupid to discover and adopt any rational measure to secure and defend his rights as a man, may now be congratulated upon the telling contradiction which he has recently and strikingly given to this withering disparagement and reproach. He has, discovered and adopted a measure which may assist very materially in, the solution of some of the vital problems involved in his sudden elevation: from slavery to freedom, and from chattelhood to manhood, and citizenship … he has adopted a simple, lawful and peaceable measure. It is emigration—the quiet withdrawal of his valuable bones and muscles from a condition of things which he considers no longer tolerable. Innocent as this remedy is for the manifold ills, which he has thus far borne with marvellous patience, fortitude, and forbearance, it is none the less significant and effective … . This exodus has revealed to southern men the humiliating fact that the prosperity and civilization of the South are at the mercy of the despised and hated Negro … .
Political tricksters, land speculators, defeated office seekers, Northern malignants, speeches and resolutions in the Senate, unaided by other causes, could not, of themselves, have set such a multitudinous Exodus in motion … We have the story of the emigrants themselves, and if any can reveal the true cause of this Exodus they can … They tell us with great unanimity that they are very badly treated at the South …
[As a strategy, however] it is a surrender, a premature, disheartening surrender, since it would make freedom and free institutions depend upon migration rather than protection; by flight, rather than right … It leaves the whole question of equal rights on the soil of the South open and still to be settled … it is a confession of the utter unpracticability of equal rights and equal protection in any State, where those rights may be struck down by violence … The dissemination of this doctrine by the agents of emigration, cannot but do the cause of equal rights much harm. It lets the public mind down from the high ground of a great national duty, to a miserable compromise, in which wrong surrenders nothing and right everything … Does not one exodus invite another, and in advocating one do we not sustain the demand for another? …
As an assertion of power by a people hitherto held in bitter contempt; as an emphatic and stinging protest against high-handed, greedy and shameless injustice to the weak and defenceless; as a means of opening the blind eyes of oppressors to their folly and peril, the Exodus has done valuable service. Whether it has accomplished all of which it is capable in this particular direction for the present, is a question which may well be considered. With a moderate degree of intelligent leadership among the laboring class at the South, properly handling the justice of their cause, and wisely using the Exodus example, they can easily exact better terms for their labor than ever before. Exodus is medicine, not food. If it is attempted by force or fraud to compel the colored people to stay, then they should by all means go; go quickly, and die, if need be, in the attempt … In no case must the Negro be “bottled up” or “caged up” … Woe to the oppressed and destitute of all countries and races if the rich and powerful are to decide when and where they shall go or stay … The cry of “Land and Liberty,” the watchword of the Nihilistic party in Russia, has a music in it sweet to the ear of all oppressed peoples, and well it shall be for the landholders of the South if they shall learn wisdom in time and adopt such a course of just treatment towards the landless laborers of the South in the future as shall make the popular watchword uncontagious and unknown among their laborers, and further stampede to the North wholly unknown … .
Richard T. Greener:
While time has modified his [Douglass’] extreme views, and more recent events have blunted the edge of his sarcasm, and while most of his objections are of the negative rather than the positive order, against the methods and men who seek to help the movement, rather than against the Exodus itself, still the morale of his influence is in opposition … it may be said, no favorer of migration claims it as the sole, proper or only permanent remedy for the aggravated relation of landlord and tenant at the South. It is approved as one remedy, thus far the most salutary, in stopping lawlessness and exactions … .
We must organize societies, contribute our dimes, and form a network of communication. between the South and every principal point North and West. We should raise $200,000 to form a company; we should have a National Executive Committee, and have agents to buy land, procure cheap transportation, disseminate accurate information, and see to it that they are neither deluded nor defrauded. Such an organization, working through our churches and benevolent societies, would do more to develop our race than all the philanthropic measures designed to aid us since the war.
Addresses delivered before the American Social Science Association, September 12, 1879 and published in the Journal of Social Science (Boston, May, 1880), XI, pp. 1-35.