Reference Entry

Black Separatism

Fred Lindsey

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195167771
Black Separatism

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After 1820, when the political climate in the United States began to turn more strongly against black people, black separatism and full integration into American society were the two main trends of discussion among African Americans. Some black people advocated leaving the United States and going to Africa or to other places of freedom, while others—most notably, the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass—suggested that they should stay in America and fight for equality. In 1792 several hundred black Americans went to Sierra Leone to join a British-governed African resettlement, and in 1815 more blacks joined them under the leadership of Paul Cuffe. The act of emigration was seen as a legitimate and progressive response to the oppressive conditions of the slave system, especially since many slaves were born in Africa. The main criticism of these emigration efforts, voiced by African Americans like Douglass, was that the institution of slavery would remain intact and that emigration would serve only the interests of a few middle-class free blacks who could afford the travel and whites who wanted blacks out of the United States. One of the most prominent advocates of black emigration was Martin Robison Delany. A Harvard-educated physician, Delany was seen as an articulate spokesperson opposing Douglass's views. He did not share Douglass's belief that America would allow blacks to become citizens and disagreed with Douglass about blacks' staying in America. He urged black Americans to immigrate to Canada, various countries in Central and South America, or the West Indies, saying that the people of those countries were in the same plight as African Americans. Delany knew not to believe the reports that Africa was the “dark continent” and that the African people were without science, arts, and knowledge of government, as similar comments were made about black Americans. He felt that the ignorance of Africa could be conquered, black nations and African Americans could profit and learn from one another, and all would grow as people. Delany saw whites as the oppressors. As a leading advocate of black separatism, he believed that blacks had a duty to establish their own society where they would be free to enjoy the privileges of citizenship. With the publication of his 1852 book The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Delany became the embodiment of radical emigrationist politics, much to the displeasure of Douglass, who advocated social integration. “No people can be free who themselves do not constitute an essential part of the ruling element of the country in which they live,” Delany said. Henry Highland Garnet, a Presbyterian minister and abolitionist, urged slaves to take action to gain their own freedom, telling them “you are far better off dead than to live as slaves.” As a proponent of emigration, Garnet advocated any destination that would provide blacks with justice and dignity, but he favored Liberia. Henry Turner, a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Georgia, was one of the main proponents of the idea that African Americans emigrate from the United States and go to Africa. Although he inspired much enthusiasm among southern blacks, his efforts were doomed by transportation problems, reports of a harsh life in Africa, inadequate financial backing, and a lack of interest on the part of the black middle class and the educated black elite. Blacks who agreed with Douglass and advocated staying in America to fight for equality included Maria Stewart. One of a handful of African American women on the lecture circuit, Stewart argued that the goal of blacks in America was to improve their lives and eventually become an integral part of American life. She maintained that blacks were disadvantaged not because of natural inferiority but because of prejudice and slavery. Once those impediments were abolished, education and opportunity would remedy the situation. Frederick Douglass, as a staunch integrationist, shared Stewart's optimism. He did not support armed resistance or resettlement in African or Latin American countries. In Baltimore, Maryland, where Douglass had lived as a young man, the churches were the bulwark of society, and it was common for black churches to have open forums on the plight of black Americans. There the merits of colonization and emigration were discussed and debated as the only schemes for ending slavery that were acceptable to whites. These issues were deliberated cautiously in southern black churches much as they were in churches in the North; like their counterparts in the North, southern black churchgoers were circumspect enough not to allow their discussions to leave their neighborhoods. Internally and privately, however, most members of black churches condemned colonization and emigration and called for the immediate freeing of slaves. As a slave, Douglass sometimes had attended black churches in Baltimore, and there his opposition to colonization, emigration, and separation was first formed. As an adovocate of freedom and civil rights for all African Americans, Douglass assailed the idea of shipping blacks to Africa. In his speeches and writings he argued that “contact with the white race, even under the many unjust and painful restrictions to which we are subject, does more toward our elevation and improvement, than the mere circumstances of being separated from them could.” He invoked the American Dream, in which people of all races find security and enjoy the right to pursue happiness in freedom and equality, and he spent his life in struggle, first for the abolition of slavery and later for the uplift and betterment of all blacks. He envisioned equality for all in a mixed society. As an orator, Douglass used many rhetorical strategies to effectively communicate with his multiracial audiences. Within the antislavery movement were two overlapping movements, “one white and one black, one of integration, and one of emigration.” Voicing his position as a mediator between black and white abolitionists, he came to embody a multiracial antislavery movement: Laying aside all prejudice in favor of or against race, looking at the Negro as politically and socially related to people generally, and measuring the forces arrayed against him, I do not see how he can survive and flourish in this country as a distinct and separate race, nor do I see how he can be removed from the country either by annihilation or expatriation. (Doughty, p. 438) As Douglass matured as a speaker and as he questioned the concept of “freedom” for himself and other African Americans, he grew more philosophical and educated in his talks. Aware of rising resistance to the terrors of slavery, riots and rebellions among slaves and free blacks, the free black community's assistance to fugitive slaves, and other incidents of protest activity among black Americans, Douglass understood that the question of how blacks should obtain their freedom was multifaceted. However, throughout the 1840s Douglass was optimistic about the future of blacks. He believed that through constant preaching, political lobbying, and hard struggle blacks would eventually find liberty in America. Whenever he could, he spoke against violence and voiced his disfavor of any plan to send blacks to Africa. “You must be a man here,” he said. “And force your way to intelligence, wealth and respectability. If you can't do that here, you can't do it there.” In the 1850s black separatism grew in popularity and became a platform from which to maintain a sense of identity and individual worth. Douglass steadfastly maintained his disapproval, claiming that as Americans, it made no sense for African Americans to be separate. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 provoked such disillusionment among blacks that some considered the United States to be a “promised land of evil.” The law forced blacks accused of being fugitives to prove their free status, not to a jury but to a special commissioner who was paid more (ten dollars) for returning a slave to his or her alleged owner than for setting a slave free (five dollars). The law also compelled northerners to hunt down and turn in runaway slaves. As slave hunters, known as “kidnappers,” flooded the North seizing fugitives, many blacks fled to Canada. Throughout his career, Douglass's inclusive views led him to reject black separatism as a solution to the racial problems plaguing the United States. He always believed that emigration movements would undermine blacks' efforts to gain the right to citizenship in the United States. As he remarked in the January 1859 issue of Douglass' Monthly, “Now, and always, we expect to insist upon it that we are Americans; that America is our native land; that this is our home, that we are American citizens; that it is our highest wisdom thus to recognize ourselves; and that it is the duty of the American people so to recognize us.” See also Abolitionism; Africa, Idea of; Antislavery Movement; Black Abolitionists; Black Church; Black Nationalism; Black Politics; Black Uplift; Canada; Civil Rights; Colonization; Delany, Martin Robison; Discrimination; Douglass, Frederick; Douglass' Monthly; Education; Emigration to Africa; Free African Americans before the Civil War (North); Free African Americans before the Civil War (South); Fugitive Slave Law of 1850; Garnet, Henry Highland; Identity; Integration; Liberia; Oratory and Verbal Arts; Political Participation; Progress; Race, Theories of; Racism; Resistance; Riots and Rebellions; Segregation; Slavery; and Voting Rights.

Reference Entry.  1648 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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