African-American Ethnicity in the Antebellum North (C13)

When Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey escaped slavery, he hoped to become a member of mainstream society, as had other former slaves before him. He changed his surname to “Douglass,” after a hero in Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake.

He reasoned that, “the basic characteristic of Scott’s Douglas is his unflinching fortitude in adversities brought about by the wrongful loss of his patrimony.” Douglass’s “patrimony” was the legacy of his slave overseer father, Aaron Anthony.

Rejection by his father’s society is what Douglass meant by “wrongful loss.” His criticism of his father in _The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave_ (1845) was not directed at the man’s “race” nor at his “racism.”

Instead, Douglass’s indictment of his father was about Anthony’s repudiating his own children by hiding behind a wicked law that, in contrast with the French and Spanish laws once enforced in the lower South, allowed him to disown his slave offspring.

Douglass considered himself to be neither White nor Black, but both. His multiracial self-identity showed in his first autobiography. Introducing his father in Narrative, Douglass wrote, “My father was a white man.”

In this text, his mother was a stranger whom he had never seen in daylight, he could not picture her face, and he was unmoved by news of her death.

Not only did Douglass adopt a fictional Scottish hero’s name, he emphasized his (perhaps imagined) Scots descent through his father. When visiting Great Britain in 1845-47, Douglass extended his stay in Scotland.

He immersed himself in Scottish music and ballads, which he played on the violin for the rest of his life. Having plunged into a Scottish ethnic identity, Douglass wrote to his (then) friend, William Lloyd Garrison,

“If I should meet you now, amid the free hills of old Scotland, where the ancient ‘black Douglass’ [sic] once met his foes… you would see a great change in me!”

Upon arriving in Nantucket, Douglass hoped to represent a blending of both endogamous groups, a man who was half-White and half-Black: “Young, ardent, and hopeful, I entered upon this new life in the full gush of unsuspecting enthusiasm.

“The cause was good, the men engaged in it were good, the means to attain its triumph, good…. For a time, I was made to forget that my skin was dark and my hair crisped.”

But acceptance by White society was out of reach for Douglass. In the North there was no such thing as a man who was half-Black. White ships’ caulkers in New Bedford denied him a chance to work at his craft because in their eyes he was all Black.

Black society was also unwelcoming. Black stevedores rejected him because he insisted that he was half White, and refused to see himself as Black.

He joined the Garrisonians on a boat to an abolitionist convention in Nantucket. A squabble broke out when the White abolitionists demanded that the Black abolitionists take lesser accommodations. Douglass found himself classified as Black by his friends.

Later in Nantucket, Douglass so impressed the Garrisonians with his public speaking that abolitionist Edmund Quincy exchanged reports with others that Douglass was an articulate public speaker, “for a nigger.”

Douglass tried to present himself as an intermediary between America’s two endogamous groups. But the Garrisonians made it clear that he was expected to present himself as nothing more than an intelligent “Negro.”

He was told to talk only about the evils of slavery and ordered to stop talking about racialism per se. “Give us the facts [about being a slave]. We will take care of the [racial] philosophy.”

They also ordered him to “leave a little plantation speech” in his accent. In their own words, they wanted to display a smart “nigger,” but not too smart.

Douglass’s cruelest discovery came after he broke with the Garrisonians and went out on his own. Abolitionist friends of both “races” had warned him that there was nothing personal in how Garrison had used him.

The public did not want an intermediary; they wanted an articulate Black man. Douglass soon discovered that his friends were right.

His newspaper, _The North Star_, failed to sell because it had no market. White Yankees wanted to read White publications and Black Yankees wanted to read Black ones.

Black political leaders resented Douglass’s distancing himself from Black ethno-political society. There was no room in Massachusetts for a man who straddled the color line.

Douglass dutifully reinvented himself. He applied himself to learning Black Yankee culture as if it were a college course.

“He began to build a closer relationship with… Negro leaders and with the Negro people themselves, to examine the whole range of Negro problems, and to pry into every facet of discrimination.”

Eight months later, The North Star’s circulation was soaring and Black leader James McCune Smith wrote to Black activist Gerrit Smith:

“You will be surprised to hear me say that only since his Editorial career has he seen to become a colored man! I have read his paper very carefully and find phrase after phrase develop itself as in one newly born among us.”

From that day on, Douglass never looked back. The public wanted him to be hyper-Black and so hyper-Black he became. His later autobiographies reveal the change.

Narrative (1845) says, “my father was a white man,” Bondage and My Freedom (1854) says, “my father was shrouded in mystery” and “nearly white,” and Life and Times (1882-1892) says flatly, “of my father I know nothing.”

Narrative says his mother was a stranger whose death did not affect him. Bondage and Freedom says he was “deeply attached to her.” Life and Times says, “her image is ineffably stamped upon my memory,” and describes her death with ” poignancy and sorrow.”

Although he wore a public persona of extreme Blackness, he continued to see himself as half White Scottish in his private life. When he married Helen Pitts, a White woman, even friends were bothered by the mismatch between the public and private Douglass.

In 1886 Jacksonville FL, Douglass justified his intermarriage on the grounds of his multiracial self-identity. According to James Weldon Johnson, “Douglass spoke, and moved a large audience of white and colored people by his supreme eloquence. …”

Douglass, in reply to the current criticisms regarding his second marriage, said, “In my first marriage I paid my compliments to my mother’s race; in my second marriage I paid my compliments to the race of my father.”

The Invention of African-American Ethnicity

The clash between how Douglass saw himself in 1838 and the public persona that he was forced to portray, was due to the presence of African-American ethnicity in the North.

Free citizens of part-African ancestry in the South, especially in the lower South, lacked the sense of common tradition associated with ethnic self-identity.

This is session C13. African-American Ethnicity in the Antebellum North. It is the final topic of our series on the U.S. color line: when where, how and why it was invented. Last week in C12 we talked about Spanish Florida. Today we trace the emergence of African-American ethnicity in the North in four topics:

Origins of African-American Ethnicity explains how the imposition of a unique endogamous color line eventually led to the synthesis of a unique ethno-cultural community in the Jacksonian Northeast.

African-American Ethnic Traits outlines the customs of the Black Yankee ethnic group to reveal that they gave birth to many of today’s African-American traditions.

The Integration versus Separatism Pendulum introduces a debate that has occupied Black political leaders since colonial times.

The Color Line in the North contrasts the harsh enforcement of the intermarriage barrier in the free states with the more permeable systems of the lower South (as presented in the preceding three session).

Early in the nineteenth-century, the American North saw the emergence of invented ethnic self-identities that became political power groups: Germans, Irish, Jews, Hispanics (from Louisiana and Florida), and, of course, Black Yankees.

Each ethnicity was synthetic in the sense that, while adopting symbols (traditions, language, rituals) associated with some land of origin, it absorbed diversity under a single label.

Residents of what would become western Germany (Bavaria or Hesse-Kassel), for example, did not think of themselves as kin to Prussians until after they became a U.S. ethnicity.

Despite internal divisions, immigrants learned that power in America comes to those who command bloc votes. Each ethnic label became an umbrella designation covering all who joined.

Parades, public rituals, riots, and gang wars pitted group against group. The aggressive, in-your-face umbrella ethnicities of the period sprang from democracy and surged with the widening Jacksonian franchise. Ethnic groups were voting blocs.

You would think that Black Yankees would have been more diverse than European ethnicities because Africa is so much larger and more populous than Europe.

The triangle bounded by Cape Town, Casablanca, and Cairo is a vast kaleidoscope of thousands of cultures, religions, and mutually unintelligible languages. Even so, Black Northerners were not exempt from the need to define themselves as an ethnic group.

Black Yankees in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati also conducted parades, processions, and festivals to, “strengthen and solidify the boundaries of class and ethnicity that buttressed and circumscribed American politics of self-interest.”

“Amid much pomp and parade, with carriaged processions of Revolutionary War veterans, members of benevolent and literary societies, and the committee on arrangements, entire communities made a public show of their industry, integrity, [and] temperance.

Newspapers reported: “Women and children joined the parades, waving flags from the windows of omnibuses.

“Along waterways like the Hudson and Susquehanna rivers, chartered steamboats brought large delegations from different localities to common points of celebration like Geneva, New York, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

“In a resonant declaration of Pan-African unity, African-American communities made clear [their solidarity].”

In Cincinnati, a three-way fight for jobs, among Black Yankees, Irish, and Germans, led to the exile of Black Yankees from the state. The fight among laborers for lucrative work on Cincinnati’s docks led to demonstrations, then parades, then riots.

Previously, Cincinnati’s African Americans caste had provided the bulk of construction laborers, porters, vendors, shoeblacks, messengers, and domestic workers-steady work in an expanding economy.

The growing political power of Irish and German immigrants struggling to distinguish themselves as White men too, led to enforcement of the repressive Ohio Black Codes, laws that had long been on the books but ignored.

The city expelled Black Yankee children from public schools and forbade the construction of Black private schools. By the summer of 1829, Black Cincinnatians avoided going out in public to hotels, restaurants, theaters, or White churches

Former Virginian John Malvin organized a petition drive calling for a repeal of the Black codes. In angry reaction, the city council gave each Black Cincinnatian thirty days to leave the state or post $500 surety bond (roughly $25,000 apiece, in today’s money).

Desperate, Malvin negotiated a sixty-day extension from the city in order for the refugees to find new homes in exile. The not-yet-fully-White immigrant German and Irish laborers responded with a riot that burned down all of Cincinnati’s Black residential areas.

The exile and arson riot shocked Americans everywhere. It was reported worldwide. Compassion for the victims sparked collection drives for money, food, and clothing even among Southern slave-owners.

Zephaniah Kingsley, one of Florida’s wealthiest slaveowners, a man who, seven years earlier had been appointed by President Monroe to Florida’s Legislative Council wrote:

“[racial tolerance] may be considered as a standard measure by which the comparative state of civilization… may be fairly estimated.”

He opined that Ohio had stepped outside the limits of civilized society, “in its acts of oppression against its free colored inhabitants, by which their existence seems so far to have been threatened….”

Frederick Douglass, the former slave, had no more success at portraying himself as biracial man in such an environment than an agnostic resident of Belfast would have in adopting a dual Catholic/Protestant persona today.

 Ethnic Traits

The newly invented African-American ethnicity of the early 1800s differed from today’s African-American ethnicity only slightly. Today’s ethnic traits come from a post-bellum blending of three cultural streams:

the Black Yankee ethnicity of 1830, the slave traditions of the antebellum South, and the free Creole or Mulatto elite trad
itions of the lower South.

Each of the three sources provided elements of the religious, linguistic, and folkloric traditions found in today’s African-American ethnicity. But the strongest stream of ethnic tradition comes from the men who coined the very term “African-American.”

Although less wealthy than the Gulf Coast Creoles, the Black Yankees had developed a strong supportive culture that could withstand the buffeting of social upheaval. They were usually ostracized from mainstream society due to the endogamous color line.

According to contemporary accounts, they responded with grace and dignity, making a virtue of their separation. It was not uncommon to see lines of quiet, well-behaved children following their parents to Sunday service.

Their preachers taught that they were put on earth to be tested. Their lot was to serve as example to White folks of how civilized Christians behave.

Most Black Yankees distinguished themselves from slaves-indeed many families had no history of slavery but descended from indentured servants. Nevertheless, many were active contributors to and activists in the abolition movement.

This sympathy for slaves in the south is in contrast to the biracial elite of the Gulf coast and Latin America, who owned slaves and defended slavery as a noble institution.

There was no similar independent Black ethnicity among Hispanic or French Creole planters of part-African ancestry. This was because the lower South lacked a single endogamous color line.

In many ways, Black Yankee culture (religion, language, music, dance, food, costume) was indistinguishable from that of White Yankees. The boisterous interactive style of many African-American church services today was been alien to them.

Daniel A. Payne was a Black Yankee, a career AME minister in Philadelphia. He was a sympathizer of the Underground Railroad, so its organizers asked him to preach to a group of newly escaped slaves. His diary reports:

After the sermon, they formed a ring, and with coats off sung, clapped their hands and stamped their feet in a most ridiculous and heathenish way. I requested that the pastor go and stop their dancing.At his request they stopped their dancing and clapping of hands, but remained singing and rocking their bodies to and fro.

Hypodescent was much stricter in the antebellum North than in the antebellum South. The children of interracial marriages in the Northeast were usually census-reported as “Negroes” rather than as “Mulattos” or “Coloured” as in the West, Midwest, or South.

Black Yankees set many of the patterns of modern African-American life. They developed the supportive church-centered social structure found in African-American communities today.

Long before the South was segregated, they faced isolation and cyclical rejection by mainstream society. They were also the first to articulate the dilemma that continues to occupy Black thinkers to this day: integration versus separatism.

The Integration versus Separatism Pendulum

The ethnicity invented by Black Yankees oscillated between two poles, just as African-American ethnicity does today. At one extreme, they coined the term African-American, invented a fantasy image of Africa as a civilized, Eden-like homeland.

They strove to emigrate to lands where Blacks ruled, and demanded segregated churches for worship by their adults and segregated schools for the education of their children in order to preserve their cultural integrity.

At the other extreme, they saw themselves as true Americans, their families having lived in the U. S. since long before the first Irish and Germans arrived. They demanded integrated schools where their children could learn American mainstream values.

They demanded full membership in the body politic, and rejected colonization overseas as unjust exile.

Although at any given instant in time, at least some Black Yankees populated the entire ideological spectrum between these two extremes of separatism on the one hand and integration on the other, fashions changed over the years.

From the Revolution to about 1826, the Black Yankee ethnic self-image leaned towards separatism. They spoke longingly of returning to Africa. Yet, few emigrated although many had the opportunity.

Instead, Africa became a fantasized Eden, spoken of in hushed tones the way European Jews would say “next year in Jerusalem.” They made up rituals and customs, which they attributed to the Dark Continent. They founded the traditional Black churches.

The African Society, founded in 1796, was the first to use the term to denote upper-class Black Yankees. Using his own money, ship’s captain Paul Cuffee of Boston personally conveyed 38 emigrants who wanted to return to Africa to Sierra Leone in 1815.

Bostonian Prince Hall, born in Barbados in 1748, organized the first chapter of African-American Masonry in 1775 and led the 1787 petition drive to open segregated schools in Boston, so Black children could be taught by members of their own culture.

After the Revolution, Peter J. Williams, Jr. and Samuel Cornish founded segregated schools for Black children in New York city, again to preserve African-American cultural integrity.

Shortly before the great Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones both founded African-American churches, the former the AME Church, the latter an African branch of the Episcopal Church.

Allen and Jones both vowed that their churches, “would admit none to be enrolled members but descendants of the African race.”

The Black Yankee ideological pendulum swung the other way around 1826. Black Yankees demanded full citizenship. Many families tried to enroll their children in mainstream schools. Africa was no longer seen as a desirable homeland. According to one editor:

Our claims are on America, it is the land that gave us birth; it is the land of our nativity, we know no other country, it is a land in which our fathers have suffered and toiled; they have watered it with their tears, and fanned it with their sighs. Our relation with Africa is the same as the white man’s is with Europe. We have passed through several generations in this country, and consequently we have become naturalized, our habits, our manners, our passions, our dispositions have become the same. I might as well tell the white man about England… and call him a European, as for him to call us “Africans”.

Ship’s captain Paul Cuffee died in 1817. His dream of emigrating to Africa was carried forward by the American Colonization Society, but by 1826 the dream began to unravel.

In part, AME founder Richard Allen and the other delegates were unhappy that the White-run ACS had taken over governing what would eventually become the Liberia colony, rather than let Blacks control it.

More importantly, migrating back to an imagined African homeland was no longer fashionable. Black emigrants were going to Canada and Haiti instead.

In September of 1830, Baltimore ice dealer Hezekiah Grice suggested to Philadelphia AME Church founder Richard Allen that he convene a national meeting of Black Yankee leaders. The first goal was to debate colonization. They decided against it.

The second goal was to collect money for the 1200-2000 Black refugees who had been exiled from Cincinnati to Canada on short notice.

The convention met annually for six years, debating all aspects of the integration versus separatism pendulum. The sixth and final National Black Convention was held in 1835, its activist civil-rights agenda taken over by self-help (temperance) advocates.

Hezekiah Grice, the Baltimore ice dealer who had started it all, moved to Haiti in 1832 and was named director of Public Works for Port-au-Prince in 1834.

Thirteen years later, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) founded his newspaper, The North Star. Douglass handled the editorial end while Martin R. Delany (1812-1885) traveled throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky.

Delaney lectured, reported, and sold advertising and subscriptions for the newspaper. Though both men were uncompromising and eloquent in their support of African Americans, they came to represent both ends of the integration-versus-separatism spectrum.

Delany, who epitomized Black nationalism, advocated emigration and cultural integrity. Douglass continued to advocate integration, assimilation, and American patriotism.

The ideological clash became evident in the case Roberts v. City of Boston, 1849.

62 years after Prince Hall persuaded Boston’s city fathers to open segregated schools for Black children so that they could be taught their cultural heritage, the parents of Sarah C. Roberts sued the city for not allowing Sarah to attend a White school.

The African-American community split. Heated intra-group debates erupted over the desirability of segregated schools for Boston’s Black children.

The Color Line in the North

The endogamous color line was enforced more strictly in the North than in the antebellum lower South (South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida).
During Tocqueville’s 1831 visit to the North, he wrote: “Race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known.”

Abraham Lincoln represented his constituency in Springfield, Illinois, on June 26, 1857. He repeated the following speech in a dozen later venues, and referred back to it for the rest of his life:

Judge Douglas is especially horrified at the thought of the mixing blood by the white and black races: agreed for once-a thousand times agreed.

… On this point we fully agree with the Judge; and when he shall show that his policy is better adapted to prevent amalgamation than ours we shall drop ours, and adopt his. Let us see. In 1850 there were in the United States, 405,751, mulattoes.

Very few of these are the offspring of whites and free blacks; nearly all have sprung from black slaves and white masters. A separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation.

If white and black people never get together in Kansas, they will never mix blood in Kansas. … That the chief plank in [the Republican] platform-opposition to the spread of slavery-is most favorable to that separation.

Like Lincoln, many Midwestern Abolitionists became peculiarly enraged at the possibility of intermarriage. In 1862 Ohio, abolitionist newspaperman Calvin Kingsley wrote:

In the North it is a strange and disgusting sight to see a white man with a colored wife. In the South it can be practically seen everywhere. As to political equality, it has nothing whatever to do with the question of emancipation.

In 1863 Illinois, The Chicago Tribune said that Republican doctrine was to: “separate the whites from adulterous communication with [Blacks]; and preserve the purity of Caucasian blood from African admixture.

In 1863 Chicago and Columbus, editors responded to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by saying that Republicans were:

actively promoting miscegenation, the most dreaded form of equality. [This will destroy] “the identity of both [races] and substitute in their stead human mongrels.

Even the Government-appointed American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission reported in 1864 that amalgamation between the races led to degeneration. In 1864, Democrat John McClernand of Illinois said, “We want no intermixture of white blood with theirs,” and Republicans answered that it was the Democratic slaveowners who had long been guilty of trying “to bleach out the black race.”

Congressman George W. Julian “recoiled in disgust” at the “intimate relations as there were in the South where slave mothers and slave masters are brought on to the level of social equality in its most loathsome forms.”

In short, virtually all Midwesterners, Democrats, Republicans, Free-Soilers, Know-Nothings, Popular Sovereignty advocates, and Abolitionists alike agreed on only one thing-the importance of preserving White “racial” purity via the endogamous color line.

Some scholars interpret the northern accusations that slaveowners in the South openly intermarried as political hyperbole. In fact, as shown in the prior three topics, the accusers were correct.

More Southern slaveowners married interracially than Northern abolitionists ever did. This was especially true of the thousands of Creole, Hispanic, and West Indian slaveowners in the lower South who were themselves of partial African ancestry.

For the detailed text of this topic, complete with footnoted references, citations, and all the peer-reviewed material, visit The Color Line Created African-American Ethnicity in the Antebellum North.

Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.

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