Baptists and the American Civil War: December 1, 1865

Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi Map 1861Today the first Convention of Colored Citizens of the State of Arkansas is gathered in Little Rock. Many Baptists are among those present. The purpose of the convention is to exert the rights of freedmen and ensure that white Southerners respect their freedom.

The road thus far has been brutal, and a future of true freedom is far from assured. William H. Grey, born a free black and a member of the American Methodist Episcopal Church, is one of five persons on the Committee of Resolutions and Memorials. He offers these words.

“Mr. President and Fellow~Citizens:
Having but just arrived from a tedious journey of some six days, the latter portion of which was prosecuted on foot, for the purpose of being present at the organization of this honorable body, I find myself wholly unprepared to do justice to the subject under consideration; but as many of us have braved many difficulties to be present at this Convention, to consider these momentous questions, as they relate to us and our State, this is not the time nor place to offer frivolous excuses, as regards our ability to solve them in all their bearings and relations to us. When the angry guns in Charleston harbor told the world that the hand of the paracide had been raised, and the blow directed against the world’s best model of good government, we were scarcely awakened in our prison-house of slavery into sufficient attention to suppose that the gathering forces around us had any reference to the bettering of our condition, though for over two centuries the obedient slaves of the haughty Southron, and as Gen. Blair once said, in a speech in Boston, on the separation of the races, “seemingly bound by ties that amounted almost to those of consanguinity.” Those ties, even those of consanguinity, were severed, and the haughty, self-willed people declared, in the face of an enlightened world, that slavery was divine, and accepted it as the corner-stone of a bastard republic,  whose end and aim was to establish the fact that God had abandoned the Negro to the tender mercies of the modern Egyptian and Apostolic Christians of the nineteenth century. My friends, I am sorry to say, that except the little leaven that eventually leavened the whole , t h e sympathy manifested for us in the war was not all of a flattering character; our condition did then excite the commiseration of the true philanthropist, when on escaping from rebel masters, we were worked upon Union fortifications, and then politely returned for fear of exciting to anger the already kindled ire of “our Southern Brethren.” I remember well w hen the poor Negro would be, and was, brutally beaten almost to death for innocently wearing the cast-off clothes of a Union officer whom he served, when the New York F/orld, Chicago Times, and the Missouri Republican took the horrors at the idea of a Negro disgracing the uniform of a Federal soldier.
But Lincoln saw another sight.

It was found, after disaster brought the nation to sober reflection, like the ancients who consulted their soothsayers and seers, so those who were guiding the Ship of State applied to the sages of the nation in this hour of dire affliction and deep humiliation. It was then that Robert Dale Owen, in a letter to President Lincoln, declared that history gave no account of twelve millions of people being conquered, when united and fighting for their independence. He then proceeded to show the relative strength of the two sections— how the one could be reduced and the other strengthened. Public sentiment began to change, and from that time the rising star of the Negro has been seen hovering over Washington. We have since been seen not only in the uniform of the soldier, but battling for our rights as citizens of the several States in which we reside. God, in his providence, has permitted the seeming ignorant stolidity of the Negro to be more than a match for the learning of the Saxon. After an acquaintance of two hundred years, he woke up in ’62, and found the Negro not half as big a fool as he thought he was. True, they had always been accustomed to hear their advice received respectfully, in short monosyllables—yes, sir, massa; or no, sir, massa. They never once dreamed that under this seeming respect there was a human soul, with a will and a purpose of its own. We have now thrown off the mask, hereafter to do our own talking, and to use all legitimate means to get and to enjoy our political privileges. We don’t want anybody to swear for us or to vote for us; we want to exercise those privileges for ourselves; and we have met here, under the new order of things, to ask of the people of Arkansas—calmly, dispassionately and respectfully— to give us those rights, and by giving us those rights they will give peace and quiet to the State, and at once place her in advance of her sister States in the march of progress and civilization. We are not asking that the people should try any new experiment in this matter; we do not ask them to go outside the great charter of American liberty—the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence— but rather that they should strictly conform to the letter and spirit of those time-honored documents. That we have testified in the civil courts of nearly all the States, in the early history of the country, is a fact so well established that it is not necessary to deduce the proof. We have also voted in very many of the States, without detriment to the commonwealths in which we enjoyed the privilege. We vote in some of the States to-day, and have the satisfaction of knowing that, on several Important elections, the Negro, standing firm to principle, has saved the people. For Instance, in the late election in Ohio, Gen. Cox was elected by just the amount of colored men’s votes polled in the State–25,000. Col. B. Gratz BrownS declared, in a letter to a friend, on the suffrage question, that the Negro vote in the State of New York saved the State to the Union party.

We must be allowed to save our State from the hands of treacherous friends and open enemies. We ask it for your benefit and our good; we ask it of you because without it you can never have any real peace; without it you cannot resume your proud position in the galaxy of States; without it you cannot definitely settle your vexed labor question; without it, in a word, you cannot have a Republican form of Government— such an one as the Constitution recognizes, and around xjhich it throws its protection.

There is no use in arguing the abstract question of our fitness to exercise these duties of the citizen— that is simply begging the question. Establish the principle irrevocably and universally, and then reduce us to the restrictions Imposed on others. Gen. Sherman says: “The hand that lays down the musket should pick up the ballot.”

Gen. Palmerl asks that the Negro be subject to the same laws governing other men, and then let him paddle his own canoe.

Fred. Douglass, in his inimitable style, says, “that if a drunken Irishman knows how to vote, surely a sober Negro could vote as well.” There is nothing new in it; we have voted, and we desire to exercise the privilege granted us heretofore, as our inalienable right; we have won it fairly, honestly and righteously; it was the last feather that broke the camel’s back; it was the Negro thrown into the scale on the side of the nation that broke the back of the rebellion and saved the nation, and I scout the idea as unworthythe Intelligence of the American people, that they fought for his freedom, unless they couple with it the fact that we fought, and saved the Government, for the love we bore it, without bounty, and scarcely any pay, and when the Government could not, or did not, protect us from the halter of the captor. Friends, we cannot retrograde. The Government of the United States is pledged to secure our rights; we wrote the contract in blood, when her own children were about to destroy her. The Goveriment cannot recede from its pledged faith in the eyes of the world— she would be execrated. We ask, therefore, that the State do for us what the Government must do eventually. Our future is sure God has marked it out with his own finger; here we have lived, suffered, fought, bled, and many have died. We will not leave the graves of our fathers, but here we will rear our children; here we will educate them to a higher destiny; here, where we have been degraded, will we be exalted— AMERICANS IN AMERICA, ONE AND INDIVISIBLE.”

Sources: “Proceedings of the Convention of Colored Citizens of the State of Arkansas : held in Little Rock, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 30, Dec. 1 & 2., 1865” (link); Hamilton James Eckenrode, The Political History of Virginia During the Reconstruction, Issue 1, Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1904. pp. 56-57 (link)