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The Black Woman Of The South: Her Neglects And Her Needs


ALEXANDER CRUMMELL, D.D., an eminent Negro Episcopal clergyman; a
graduate of Oxford University, England; professor in a Liberian College;
rector of St. Luke's in Washington and founder of the Negro Academy.

[Note 18: Address before the "Freedman's Aid Society," Methodist
Episcopal Church, Ocean Grove, N. J., August 15th, 1883.]

It is an age clamorous everywhere for the dignities, the grand
prerogatives, and the glory of woman. There is not a country in Europe
where she has not risen somewhat above the degradation of centuries, and
pleaded successfully for a new position and a higher vocation. As the
result of this new reformation we see her, in our day, seated in the
lecture-rooms of ancient universities, rivaling her brothers in the
fields of literature, the grand creators of ethereal art, the
participants in noble civil franchises, the moving spirit in grand
reformations, and the guide, agent, or assistant in all the noblest
movements for the civilization and regeneration of man.

In these several lines of progress the American woman has run on in
advance of her sisters in every other quarter of the globe. The
advantage, she has received, the rights and prerogatives she has secured
for herself, are unequaled by any other class of women in the world. It
will not be thought amiss, then, that I come here to-day to present to
your consideration the one grand exception to this general superiority
of women, viz., The black woman of the South.

* * * * *

The rural or plantation population of the South was made up almost
entirely of people of pure Negro blood. And this brings out also the
other disastrous fact, namely, that this large black population has been
living from the time of their introduction into America, a period of
more than two hundred years, in a state of unlettered rudeness. The
Negro all this time has been an intellectual starveling. This has been
more especially the condition of the black woman of the South. Now and
then a black man has risen above the debased condition of his people.
Various causes would contribute to the advantage of the men: the
relation of servants to superior masters; attendance at courts with
them; their presence at political meetings; listening to table-talk
behind their chairs; traveling as valets; the privilege of books and
reading in great houses, and with indulgent masters--all these served to
lift up a black man here and there to something like superiority. But
no such fortune fell to the lot of the plantation woman. The black woman
of the South was left perpetually in a state of hereditary darkness and

* * * * *

In her girlhood all the delicate tenderness of her sex was rudely
outraged. In the field, in the rude cabin, in the press-room, in the
factory, she was thrown into the companionship of coarse and ignorant
men. No chance was given her for delicate reserve or tender modesty.
From her girlhood she was the doomed victim of the grossest passions.
All the virtues of her sex were utterly ignored. If the instinct of
chastity asserted itself, then she had to fight like a tigress for the
ownership and possession of her own person; and, ofttimes, had to suffer
pains and lacerations for her virtuous self-assertion. When she reached
maturity all the tender instincts of her womanhood were ruthlessly
violated. At the age of marriage--always prematurely anticipated under
slavery--she was mated, as the stock of the plantation were mated, not
to be the companion of a loved and chosen husband, but to be the breeder
of human cattle, for the field or the auction-block. With that mate she
went out, morning after morning to toil, as a common field-hand. As it
was his, so likewise was it her lot to wield the heavy hoe, or to
follow the plow, or to gather in the crops. She was a "hewer of wood and
a drawer of water." She was a common field-hand. She had to keep her
place in the gang from morn till eve, under the burden of a heavy task,
or under the stimulus or the fear of a cruel lash. She was a picker of
cotton. She labored at the sugar-mill and in the tobacco-factory. When,
through weariness or sickness, she has fallen behind her allotted task,
there came, as punishment, the fearful stripes upon her shrinking,
lacerated flesh.

Her home life was of the most degrading nature. She lived in the rudest
huts, and partook of the coarsest food, and dressed in the scantiest
garb, and slept, in multitudinous cabins, upon the hardest boards.

Thus she continued a beast of burden down to the period of those
maternal anxieties which, in ordinary civilized life, give repose,
quiet, and care to expectant mothers. But, under the slave system, few
such relaxations were allowed. And so it came to pass that little
children were ushered into this world under conditions which many
cattle-raisers would not suffer for their flocks or herds. Thus she
became the mother of children. But even then there was for her no
suretyship of motherhood, or training, or control. Her own offspring
were not her own. She and husband and children were all the property
of others. All these sacred ties were constantly snapped and cruelly
sundered. This year she had one husband; and next year, through some
auction sale, she might be separated from him and mated to another.
There was no sanctity of family, no binding tie of marriage, none of the
fine felicities and the endearing affections of home. None of these
things was the lot of Southern black women. Instead thereof, a gross
barbarism which tended to blunt the tender sensibilities, to obliterate
feminine delicacy and womanly shame, came down as her heritage from
generation to generation; and it seems a miracle of providence and grace
that, notwithstanding these terrible circumstances, so much struggling
virtue lingered amid these rude cabins, that so much womanly worth and
sweetness abided in their bosoms, as slave-holders themselves have borne
witness to.

But some of you will ask: "Why bring up these sad memories of the past?
Why distress us with these dead and departed cruelties?" Alas, my
friends, these are not dead things. Remember that

"The evil that men do lives after them."

The evil of gross and monstrous abominations, the evil of great organic
institutions crop out long after the departure of the institutions
themselves. If you go to Europe you will find not only the roots, but
likewise many of the deadly fruits of the old Feudal system still
surviving in several of its old states and kingdoms. So, too, with
slavery. The eighteen years of freedom have not obliterated all its
deadly marks from either the souls or bodies of the black woman. The
conditions of life, indeed, have been modified since emancipation; but
it still maintains that the black woman is the Pariah woman of this
land! We have, indeed, degraded women, immigrants, from foreign lands.
In their own countries some of them were so low in the social scale that
they were yoked with the cattle to plow the fields. They were rude,
unlettered, coarse, and benighted. But when they reach this land there
comes an end to their degraded condition.

"They touch our country and their shackles fall."

As soon as they become grafted into the stock of American life they
partake at once of all its large gifts and its noble resources.

Not so with the black woman of the South. Freed, legally she has been;
but the act of emancipation had no talismanic influence to reach to and
alter and transform her degrading social life.

When that proclamation was issued she might have heard the whispered
words in her every hut, "Open, Sesame;" but, so far as her humble
domicile and her degraded person were concerned, there was no invisible
but gracious Genii who, on the instant, could transmute the rudeness of
her hut into instant elegance, and change the crude surroundings of her
home into neatness, taste, and beauty.

The truth is, "Emancipation Day" found her a prostrate and degraded
being; and, although it has brought numerous advantages to her sons, it
has produced but the simplest changes in her social and domestic
condition. She is still the crude, rude, ignorant mother. Remote from
cities, the dweller still in the old plantation hut, neighboring to the
sulky, disaffected master class, who still think her freedom was a
personal robbery of themselves, none of the "fair humanities" have
visited her humble home. The light of knowledge has not fallen upon her
eyes. The fine domesticities which give the charm to family life, and
which, by the refinement and delicacy of womanhood, preserve the
civilization of nations, have not come to her. She has still the rude,
coarse labor of men. With her rude husband she still shares the hard
service of a field-hand. Her house, which shelters, perhaps, some six or
eight children, embraces but two rooms. Her furniture is of the rudest
kind. The clothing of the household is scant and of the coarsest
material, has ofttimes the garniture of rags; and for herself and
offspring is marked, not seldom, by the absence of both hats and shoes.
She has rarely been taught to sew, and the field labor of slavery times
has kept her ignorant of the habitudes of neatness, and the requirements
of order. Indeed, coarse food, coarse clothes, coarse living, coarse
manners, coarse companions, coarse surroundings, coarse neighbors, both
black and white, yea, every thing coarse, down to the coarse, ignorant,
senseless religion, which excites her sensibilities and starts her
passions, go to make up the life of the masses of black women in the
hamlets and villages of the rural South.

This is the state of black womanhood. Take the girlhood of this same
region, and it presents the same aspect, save that in large districts
the white man has not forgotten the olden times of slavery and with
indeed the deepest sentimental abhorrence of "amalgamation," still
thinks that the black girl is to be perpetually the victim of his lust!
In the larger towns and in cities our girls in common schools and
academies are receiving superior culture. Of the 15,000 colored school
teachers in the South, more than half are colored young women, educated
since emancipation. But even these girls, as well as their more ignorant
sisters in rude huts, are followed and tempted and insulted by the
ruffianly element of Southern society, who think that black men have
no rights which white men should regard, and black women no virtue
which white men should respect!

And now look at the vastness of this degradation. If I had been
speaking of the population of a city, or a town, or even a village, the
tale would be a sad and melancholy one. But I have brought before you
the condition of millions of women. According to the census of 1880
there were, in the Southern States, 3,327,678 females of all ages of the
African race. Of these there were 674,365 girls between twelve and
twenty, 1,522,696 between twenty and eighty. "These figures," remarks an
observing friend of mine, "are startling!" And when you think that the
masses of these women live in the rural districts; that they grow up in
rudeness and ignorance; that their former masters are using few means to
break up their hereditary degradation, you can easily take in the
pitiful condition of this population, and forecast the inevitable future
to multitudes of females unless a mighty special effort is made for the
improvement of the black womanhood of the South.

I know the practical nature of the American mind, I know how the
question of values intrudes itself into even the domain of philanthropy;
and, hence, I shall not be astonished if the query suggests itself,
whether special interest in the black woman will bring any special
advantage to the American nation.

Let me dwell for a few moments upon this phase of the subject. Possibly
the view I am about suggesting has never before been presented to the
American mind. But, Negro as I am, I shall make no apology for venturing
the claim that the Negress is one of the most interesting of all the
classes of women on the globe. I am speaking of her, not as a perverted
and degraded creature, but in her natural state, with her native
instincts and peculiarities.

Let me repeat just here the words of a wise, observing, tender-hearted
philanthropist, whose name and worth and words have attained celebrity.
It is fully forty years ago since the celebrated Dr. Channing said: "We
are holding in bondage one of the best races of the human family. The
Negro is among the mildest, gentlest of men. He is singularly
susceptible of improvement from abroad.... His nature is affectionate,
easily touched, and hence he is more open to religious improvement than
the white man.... The African carries with him much more than we the
genius of a meek, long-suffering, loving virtue."

I should feel ashamed to allow these words to fall from my lips if it
were not necessary to the lustration of the character of my black
sisters of the South. I do not stand here to-day to plead for the black
man. He is a man; and if he is weak he must go the wall. He is a man;
he must fight his own way, and if he is strong in mind and body, he can
take care of himself. But for the mothers, sisters, and daughters of my
race I have a right to speak. And when I think of their sad condition
down South; think, too, that since the day of emancipation hardly any
one has lifted up a voice in their behalf, I feel it a duty and a
privilege to set forth their praises and to extol their excellencies.
For, humble and benighted as she is, the black woman of the South is one
of the queens of womanhood. If there is any other woman on this earth
who in native aboriginal qualities is her superior, I know not where she
is to be found; for, I do say, that in tenderness of feeling, in genuine
native modesty, in large disinterestedness, in sweetness of disposition
and deep humility, in unselfish devotedness, and in warm, motherly
assiduities, the Negro woman is unsurpassed by any other woman on this

The testimony to this effect is almost universal--our enemies themselves
being witnesses. You know how widely and how continuously, for
generations, the Negro has been traduced, ridiculed, derided. Some of
you may remember the journals and the hostile criticisms of Coleridge
and Trollope and Burton, West Indian and African travelers. Very many of
you may remember the philosophical disquisitions of the ethnological
school of 1847, the contemptuous dissertations of Hunt and Gliddon. But
it is worthy of notice in all these cases that the sneer, the contempt,
the bitter gibe, have been invariably leveled against the black
man--never against the black woman! On the contrary, she has almost
everywhere been extolled and eulogized. The black man was called a
stupid, thick-lipped, flat-nosed, long-heeled, empty-headed animal; the
link between the baboon and the human being, only fit to be a slave! But
everywhere, even in the domains of slavery, how tenderly has the Negress
been spoken of! She has been the nurse of childhood. To her all the
cares and heart-griefs of youth have been intrusted. Thousands and tens
of thousands in the West Indies and in our Southern States have risen up
and told the tale of her tenderness, of her gentleness, patience, and
affection. No other woman in the world has ever had such tributes to a
high moral nature, sweet, gentle love, and unchanged devotedness. And by
the memory of my own mother and dearest sisters I can declare it to be

Hear the tribute of Michelet: "The Negress, of all others, is the most
loving, the most generating; and this, not only because of her youthful
blood, but we must also admit, for the richness of her heart. She is
loving among the loving, good among the good. (Ask the travelers whom
she has so often saved.) Goodness is creative; it is fruitfulness; it is
the very benediction of a holy act. The fact that woman is so fruitful I
attribute to her treasures of tenderness, to that ocean of goodness
which permeates her heart.... Africa is a woman. Her races are
feminine.... In many of the black tribes of Central Africa the women
rule, and they are as intelligent as they are amiable and kind."

The reference in Michelet to the generosity of the African woman to
travelers brings to mind the incident in Mungo Park's travels, where the
African women fed, nourished, and saved him. The men had driven him
away. They would not even allow him to feed with the cattle; and so,
faint, weary, and despairing, he went to a remote hut and lay down on
the earth to die. One woman, touched with compassion, came to him,
brought him food and milk, and at once he revived. Then he tells us of
the solace and the assiduities of these gentle creatures for his
comfort. I give you his own words: "The rites of hospitality thus
performed toward a stranger in distress, my worthy benefactress,
pointing to the mat, and telling me that I might sleep there without
apprehension, called to the female part of her family which had stood
gazing on me all the while in fixed astonishment, to resume the task of
spinning cotton, in which they continued to employ themselves a great
part of the night. They lightened their labors by songs, one of which
was composed extempore, for I was myself the subject of it. It was sung
by one of the young women, the rest joining in a sort of chime. The air
was sweet and plaintive, and the words, literally translated, were
these: 'The winds roared and the rains fell; the poor white man, faint
and weary, came and sat under our tree. He has no mother to bring him
milk, no wife to grind his corn. Let us pity the white man, no mother
has he,'" etc.

Perhaps I may be pardoned the intrusion, just here, on my own personal
experience. During a residence of nigh twenty years in West Africa, I
saw the beauty and felt the charm of the native female character. I saw
the native woman in her heathen state, and was delighted to see, in
numerous tribes, that extraordinary sweetness, gentleness, docility,
modesty, and especially those maternal solicitudes which make every
African boy both gallant and defender of his mother.

I saw her in her civilized state, in Sierra Leone; saw precisely the
same characteristics, but heightened, dignified, refined, and sanctified
by the training of the schools, the refinements of civilization, and the
graces of Christian sentiment and feeling. Of all the memories of
foreign travel there are none more delightful than those of the families
and the female friends of Freetown.

A French traveler speaks with great admiration of the black ladies of
Hayti. "In the towns," he says, "I met all the charms of civilized life.
The graces of the ladies of Port-au-Prince will never be effaced from my

It was, without doubt, the instant discernment of these fine and tender
qualities which prompted the touching Sonnet of Wordsworth, written in
1802, on the occasion of the cruel exile of Negroes from France by the
French Government:

"Driven from the soil of France, a female came
From Calais with us, brilliant in array,
A Negro woman like a lady gay,
Yet downcast as a woman fearing blame;
Meek, destitute, as seemed, of hope or aim
She sat, from notice turning not away,
But on all proffered intercourse did lay
A weight of languid speech--or at the same
Was silent, motionless in eyes and face.
Meanwhile those eyes retained their tropic fire
Which burning independent of the mind,
Joined with the luster of her rich attire
To mock the outcast--O ye heavens, be kind!
And feel, thou earth, for this afflicted race!"

But I must remember that I am to speak not only of the neglects of the
black woman, but also of her needs. And the consideration of her needs
suggests the remedy which should be used for the uplifting of this woman
from a state of brutality and degradation.

* * * * *

Ladies and gentlemen, since the day of emancipation millions of dollars
have been given by the generous Christian people of the North for the
intellectual training of the black race in this land. Colleges and
universities have been built in the South, and hundreds of youth have
been gathered within their walls. The work of your own Church in this
regard has been magnificent and unrivaled, and the results which have
been attained have been grand and elevating to the entire Negro race in
America. The complement to all this generous and ennobling effort is the
elevation of the black woman. Up to this day and time your noble
philanthropy has touched, for the most part, the male population of the
South, given them superiority, and stimulated them to higher
aspirations. But a true civilization can only then be attained when the
life of woman is reached, her whole being permeated by noble ideas, her
fine taste enriched by culture, her tendencies to the beautiful
gratified and developed, her singular and delicate nature lifted up to
its full capacity; and then, when all these qualities are fully matured,
cultivated and sanctified, all their sacred influences shall circle
around ten thousand firesides, and the cabins of the humblest freedmen
shall become the homes of Christian refinement and of domestic elegance
through the influence and the charm of the uplifted and cultivated black
woman of the South!

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