“The Deadly Fangs of Fierce Reptiles”: Highlights from Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922
The February release of Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia includes several 19th-century addresses made by African Americans. Highlighted in this post is an 1846 speech by Gerrit Smith read by the abolitionist and minister Theodore Sedgwick Wright, a Reconstruction-era broadside encouraging African American men in the state of Georgia to vote, and a late-19th-century collection of talks by Professor Daniel Barclay Williams, including his thoughts on temperance.
An Address to the Three Thousand Colored Citizens of New-York Who Are the Owners of One Hundred and Twenty Thousand Acres of Land (1846)
By Theodore Sedgwick Wright
Addressing thousands of African Americans in New York in 1846, Rev. Theodore Wright read a letter to them from Gerrit Smith, a social reformer and an 1848 presidential candidate. Regardless of whether Smith’s gift of land—the topic of the letter—was based solely on his commitment to social justice or a combination of that devotion coupled with presidential aspirations, his gift of land was also a path to the polls for the recipients.
I could not put a bounty on color. I shrunk from the least appearance of doing so and if I know my heart, it was equally compassionate toward such white and black men, as are equal sufferers. In the end, however, I concluded to confine my gifts to colored people. I had not come to this conclusion, had the land I have to give away been several times as much as it is. I had not come to it, were not the colored people the poorest of the poor, and the most deeply wronged class of our citizens. That they are so, is evident, if only from the fact, that the cruel, killing, Heaven-defying prejudice, of which they are the victims, has closed against them the avenues to riches and respectability—to happiness and usefulness. That they are so, is also evident from the fact, that, whilst white men in this State, however destitute of property, are allowed to vote for Civil Rulers, every colored man in it, who does not own landed estate to the value of $250, is excluded from the exercise of this natural and indispensably protective right. I confess, that this mean and wicked exclusion has had no little effort in producing my preference, in this case. I confess too, that I was influenced by the consideration, that there is great encouragement to improve the condition of our free colored brethren, because that every improvement in it contributes to loosen the bands of the enslaved portion of their outraged and afflicted race.
Address to the Colored Men of Savannah, Georgia! (1880)
By L.W. West
L.W. West’s call to vote is similar to many heard today. Claiming the importance of this election as greater than any previous, reminding citizens to register to vote, and admonishing those who don’t vote of losing their credibility remain commonplace. Other aspects of West’s rallying call are unlikely to be included in today’s efforts, particularly his appeal to the manhood of African American voters.
Colored voters of Savannah; the time has come when we as voters and property owners must assert our manhood, if we have any, if not close your mouths and stop clamoring about your Rights. Not only colored men, but all classes of laboring men are interested in this matter. Class legislation has killed States, much less cities.
Now we are on the eve of an important election – the most important ever held in the city or State. We as colored men have no representation in any department of the city government; yet we are voters and tax payers to the amount of $100,000 worth of real estate. Rally to the pools [sic, polls] for once in your life and be men. Make sacrifices to show your manhood, and all classes of people will respect you – not only at home, but abroad. We demand representation in the city government, not on account of color, but as a matter of justice. Now fellow citizens you have only four more days to register. Go and perform that important duty at once and then don’t allow yourselves to be bought and sold as cattle or as you were once when under the yoke of bondage. All other Nationalties [sic] are represented on the Aldermanic Board. Have we any? Taxation without representation is repugnant to the spirit of the American Constitution.
Taxation without representation actuated the Pilgrim Fathers to strike for their liberty and independence.
Freedom and Progress (1890)
By Daniel Barclay Williams
Born in 1862 in Richmond, Virginia, Professor Daniel Barclay Williams joined the faculty of the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University) in 1885 where he taught classical languages, advocated for textbooks to be written from an African American perspective, and authored many books.
In the chapter titled, “The Evil Effects of Intemperance in the Use of Alcoholic Drinks,” Williams identifies three ways people are afflicted by drinking. Writing of the physical aspects:
The whole nervous system is so much injured by intemperance that delirium tremens – the drunkard’s messenger of death – frequently seizes the unfortunate victim. His eyes become bloodshot, and his expression, idiotic. He moans, jabbers, raves, and shrieks in a frightful manner. He sees a thousand imps before him, and feels the deadly fangs of fierce reptiles.
And the mental effects:
The perceptive faculties, by which a knowledge of external facts is acquired, and memory, the faculty which holds knowledge, are greatly weakened. Judgment, the discriminating power of the intellect, becomes uncertain, and reason, the power which takes cognizance of infinite, necessary, absolute truths, is soon dethroned.
And, the moral costs:
It converts kindness, love, confidence, friendship, and self-respect into cruelty, hate, distrust, enmity, and self-debasement, and makes the soul a cage of unclean birds.