Sunday, May 13, 2018

Race Relations in 1914

An interesting debate played out in the editorial pages of The Republican newspaper in February, 1914. James E. Kefford, a prominent businessman and a founder of the local branch of the Negro Business League, took offense at the paper's demeaning description of African Americans and apparent embrace of Jim Crow laws in an editorial published on January 31, 1914. The letters and editorials that ensued reveal much about racial discrimination in Waterbury during that time.

On January 31, The Republican ran an editorial musing about "The Color Line," the different attitudes towards African Americans in the North and in the South. The editorial was inspired by news from South Carolina that their legislature was in the process of passing a new Jim Crow law prohibiting white teachers from working in black schools and white nurses from providing medical care to black people.

The editorial started out okay, commenting that any effort to propose a similar law in the North would be "announced by pulpit and press and on public rostrum as inhumane and unconstitutional because of the discrimination between races. The very idea of forbidding a white nurse at a hospital to treat a negro who may have been beaten up in a street fight, or crushed by an automobile, or maimed in a factory, is revolting to whites in this part of the country...."

Unfortunately, the editorial quickly degraded. In describing the attitudes of even "the most refined [white] men and women" of the South, the editorial declared that the "colored man is a creature entitled to little or no consideration, unless he has been tried and proven worthy as a faithful domestic servant, or an employe [sic] in some confidential or menial position, and even between the broad-minded employer and the dark-skinned employe [sic] it is seldom that marked confidence exists."

At this point, the editorial veered into what can only be described as sympathy and support for South Carolina's institutional racism.  "The employer of experience" must follow a special "line of action" in dealing with black employees, the necessity of which "is not easily understood hereabouts except by those who have had actual experience with negro help."

The editorial concluded with the speculation that "rapidly growing negro communities in northern cities will force a change" of attitude, potentially leading to the embrace of Jim Crow laws in the North. Although not calling for segregation in the North, the editorial and subsequent editorials made it clear that The Republican thought segregation might be a good idea.

The headline that The Republican chose for Kefford's response tells us more about their view on the subject. The decision to use the phrase the "Negro Problem" takes for granted that the existence of African Americans was a problem.

The Republican, 4 February 1914

The Republican's biased attitude is more evident in their response to Kefford's letter. Their editorial, which ran on the same page as Kefford's letter on February 4, states "It is the negro in the city who is responsible for such a rule as that past [sic] in South Carolina."

The presence of African Americans taking up space in the growing cities seemed to be a primary concern for The Republican, which returned to the topic two days later:
"As cities have expanded, however, their negro populations have grown, as well as their foreign populations. White men, who knew nothing of the civil war, have come to know the American negro and the negro has come in competition with this new white man from Europe. Each has usually let the other alone, until forced to seek more comfortable quarters and trouble has always resulted.
That is the crucial problem in many American cities now—how to handle the negro tenement dweller when the white man is crowded for room. The problem has been let alone so long that its solution cannot be accomplished easily because the white man feels it is as difficult to acquire title to a home as the negro does, and they will not, and cannot house together under normal conditions." (Editorial, The Republican, 6 February 1914)

The Republican placed the entire burden of easing race relations on African Americans, stating that "the negro cannot hope to bring about" equal treatment in hospitals "until he has undertaken, without white aid, to look after his own sick, maimed, and feeble minded." The editorial then, despite praising the North for making "no distinction usually in its humane institutions between the black and the white man," warned that blacks in the North must also start taking care of their own without white aid, even thought the editorial on January 31 had declared that discrimination and segregation in hospitals was "revolting" to whites in the north.

Throughout the back and forth between The Republican and Kefford, the newspaper seemed conflicted. On the one hand, the editorials praise the accomplishments of African Americans and denounce racial discrimination as a bad thing. On the other hand, the editorials insist that blacks alone were able to create racial harmony, by getting out of the way of whites.

On February 6, The Republican's editorial declared that "the negro... must 'speed up' and soon, that he may not be in constant conflict with the whites in the city communities. He must, if need be, start towns for his own people and lay plans for the permanent provision of sanitary homes for his women and his children. He must get out of the danger of encroaching on the white man's territory until such time that the white man will voluntarily make a bed fellow of him. He must not hope to be left alone, unless he so establishes himself that his white neighbor can have no excuse for complaining that he is crowded by him."

This paragraph neatly sums up an ugly thread of white supremacy that has existed throughout the history of the United States, from the time the first colonists arrived and began pushing to force the Native Americans to get out of their way, right up to the present day when you can still find white people who will insist that they would have gotten into a good college if only "their place" hadn't been taken by a black student.

Take, for example, President Andrew Jackson's Indian Relocation Act of 1830, which forced tens of thousands of Native Americans, including the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears, to relocate to the "Indian Territory" solely because the white settlers wanted their land. This is the best known example, but there are countless others.

Just as The Republican declared that "encroaching on the white man's territory" was dangerous for African Americans, Andrew Jackson cast himself as a great benefactor to the Native Americans he relocated, warning that if they refused to leave, "they only must be liable for whatever evils & difficulties may arise." (Andrew Jackson to John Pitchlynn, August 5, 1830)

Similarly, in 1830, Jackson's close friend and Commissioner of Indian Treaties, Alfred Balch, wrote "The removal of the Indians would be an act of seeming violence--But it will prove in the end an act of enlarged philanthropy. These untutored sons of the Forest, cannot exist in a state of Independence, in the vicinity of the white man. If they will persist in remaining where they are, they may begin to dig their graves and prepare to die." (Alfred Balch to Andrew Jackson, January 8, 1830)

Kefford's Rebuttals

In his letters to the editor, Kefford comes across as a remarkably optimistic man. He wrote about the segregation that used to exist in New England, but emphasized how much things had improved:
"In, or about, the year of 1840, Fred Douglass was refused admission to any church or hall in the city of Hartford, to deliver a speech on “The Negroes in Bondage,” while just two weeks ago the best blood of Hartford turned out to welcome Booker T. Washington and his band of colored singers from the south.
To my certain knowledge the realty [real estate] condition in this city for the negro is one hundred per cent. better than it was twenty years ago and the population is five times as large as it was then. The number of colored men employed by the factories increased with the increase of the population until a few years ago when the western cities offered special inducements to go to Detroit, and other western cities, to work in factories, of which many took advantage. So, Mr. Editor, the man who thinks that we are retrograding, or that New England is going down, rather than up the scale of civilization, is indeed a pessimist. " (Letter to the Editor, The Republican, 6 February 1914)

Kefford fiercely defended the accomplishments achieved by African Americans since the abolishment of slavery, including increasing literacy rates, success in business and professional careers, ownership of banks and insurance companies, and financial prosperity.

Kefford also reprimanded The Republican for what he said was "the same old fault that I find with nearly all that appear in the daily press of the country, when they concern the negro. They try to throw them all in a heap and call them negroes, and say they are no good because they are negroes...." Kefford bolstered his argument with an example swapping their positions:
"While passing through the Green Friday night I was held up by a white American-born man and asked alms, and, to judge by his appearance, I should call him a bum. What would you and the rest of the good white people of this city say if I wrote this man up in the papers and paraded him as a fair example of the white race? I guess I would have to leave town and very quick at that." (Letter to the Editor, The Republican, 4 February 1914)
Kefford's solution to "What to do with the negro" was to "treat the negro just as you would any other American citizen" and "Let him alone." (Letter to the Editor, The Republican, 6 February 1914)

Pastor Cole's Rebuttal

Rev. J A. S. Cole, pastor of Mt. Olive A.M.E. Zion Church, sent in his own letter to the editor after reading the exchanges between Kefford and The Republican. Cole flipped The Republican's argument, stating that "the best thing the Anglo-Saxon can do for the colored man is to get out of his way and cease laying obstructions across his path for, like the sun, he is bound to shine."

Cole pointed out the flaws in The Republican's arguments:
"Mr. Editor, you said that we must “speed up” and soon, and if need be, start towns and lay plans for our women and children. I ask how can we do as the editor stated, when every avenue is closed against the colored man to earn a few dollars. If employed in the factories other nationalities will strike. If one of our young girls would be employed behind the dry goods counter of this, our city, the other Anglo-Saxon would walk out." (Letter to the Editor, The Republican, 8 February 1914)

In reference to The Republican's warning to stop "encroaching on the white man's territory," Cole wrote: "The Anglo-Saxon has not proven to me that he can live in complete harmony in any part of the United States, even when there are no colored persons present to encroach upon his territory."

Like Kefford, Cole praised the accomplishments and advancements achieved over the past half century and expressed great optimism for the future:
"I care nothing for the past. I see a great country, with her territories stretching from the rising to the setting sun, with climate as varied as a tropical day and an Arctic night, with a soil blessed by the fruits of the earth and nourished by the waters under it. I see a great country tenanted by untold millions of human beings, men of every race that God has made out of one blood to inherit the earth, a great family, governed by righteousness and justice.
With the widening of men’s visions we must realize that the basis of true democracy and human brotherhood is the common origin and destiny of the human race: that we are all here alike, live alike, and die alike, that the law of man’s existence makes absolutely no distinction. It gives to each species the right to occupy the earth in peace, prosperity, and plenty, and that the duty of each race is to promote the happiness of all."

Rampant Discrimination in Waterbury

The one thing on which all agreed was the existence of widespread racial discrimination in Waterbury, although they disagreed on the reasons.

The Republican wrote that "right here in town there is discrimination against the negro in public amusement places, where labor is employed, in realty [real estate] circles, and in divers small ways."

Despite recognizing the discrimination perpetuated by whites against blacks, The Republican's editorial perpetuated it by blaming African Americans for creating the racism by not getting out of the way of the whites:
"This discrimination exists against negroes only because the colored man has failed, so far, to look after his own best interests, and in spite of the fact that Waterbury’s negroes are a credit to their race, and valuable to the community. They have the advantage of able leadership and yet they make progress but slowly in winning the white man’s consideration. In larger cities of the north the negro problem is becoming a critical one because of the migration of white rural residents to cities and the rapid growth of the black population in cities. Instead of avoiding a conflict with the white in cities, negroes seem to be heading directly toward such a struggle. There is opportunity for them in the rural districts. They do not seem to seek this, however, in the north, and while they are making the most rapid headway toward the solution of the race problem by undertaking agricultural pursuits in the south, their tendency to stick to city life in the north is bound to be detrimental, according to present indications." (Editorial, The Republican, 4 February 1914)

On the subject of discrimination in Waterbury, Kefford replied:
"If a white man has a place of business in a locality where he has to depend largely on negro trade he overlooks the color and follies of the uninformed negro, but if he is located where he thinks the appearance there of colored people would keep some of the white ones away, why then he draws the line on even the best negroes. The same is true in hotel and eating houses." (Letter to the Editor, The Republican, 6 February 1914)

Concluding Thoughts

The Republican, naturally, had the final word in the debate. Their editorial on February 8 praised Kefford as "one of the most progressive negroes of Waterbury and a credit to the citizenship generally" and insisted that they had never meant to diminish the accomplishments of African Americans, saying that "only respect and praise are due to the race, in all fairness, for what it has done to uplift itself and its individual members."

The editorial then went on to praise the white man of both the North and the South for donating large sums of money "to help the negro educate himself, and to educate his children."

Ultimately, The Republican stuck to its conviction that the burden of resolving racial tensions lay solely on the shoulders of African Americans:
"What has been said about the danger of minimizing the race problem, about the need for the negro to keep on improving and if possible to make improvement more rapidly than he has been doing is not withdrawn, nor modified. Well as he has done, he has much more to do before the danger is past of racial conflict." (Editorial, The Republican, 8 February 1914)

The editors of The New York Age, an African American newspaper published in New York City, published their own commentary on the exchange between Kefford and The Republican on February 26. They included a lengthy quote from The Republican "because, unfortunately, it defines the attitude of many Northern and Western newspapers and public opinion."

We've come a long way since 1914, but we still have a long way to go. On some levels, we don't seem to have progressed all that much and have perhaps slid backwards. Instead of a willingness to discuss discrimination, to have open debates, we now see people trying to suppress discussion. For example, on May 8, 2018, Pennsylvania Congressman Mike Kelly said, "We are trying to make sure that we're making America great every day in every way, and the best way to do that is to stop talking about discrimination and to start talking about the nation."

That's not the first time I've heard that train of thought. Variations of it have been floating around for years -- "if only people would stop talking about racism, everyone would get along just fine." The reality, however, is that you can't fix a problem unless you address it directly. Ignore it, and it will just get worse.

In 1914, Kefford and Cole might not have been able to persuade The Republican to see things their way, but at least The Republican was willing to listen to what they had to say, to agree that discrimination was a problem, and to publish their letters so that everyone could read their arguments and decide for themselves.

In an era of social media trolls and verbal attacks masquerading as entertainment, it was refreshing to read the letters and editorials in The Republican. Kefford ending his second letter by saying "We thank you for the glowing compliment you paid us here in this city. I trust we will always merit such from gentlemen of your caliber." The final editorial from The Republican praised Kefford and declared that the newspaper "will not sanction any effort to belittle the negro’s accomplishments." Despite their disagreement, they were able to be polite and courteous to one another. I hope that public discourse returns to this someday: to welcoming open debate on sensitive topics, and to debating the issues in a mature, courteous manner.

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