“How to Solve the Race Problem” and other Highlights from Black Authors, 1556-1922
The February release of Black Authors, 1556-1922 includes a work on class and race in Philadelphia published during the Antebellum Period, an examination of the post-Reconstruction South by a Barbados-born lawyer, and an early 20th-century solution to the race problem “by eminent men of both races and in every walk of life.” Among the African American leaders who convened at the 1903 Washington Conference on the Race Problem in the United States were the 18 whose photographs appear below.
Sketches of the Higher Classes of Colored Society in Philadelphia (1841)
By A Southerner
Joseph Wilson, using the pseudonym A Southerner, wrote about his adopted city in hopes of proving to the white community that the African American community also contained an upper echelon and to offer advice to the privileged members of that class. Wilson’s work is particularly notable because it is a very early account of class and race in Philadelphia, predating W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Philadelphia Negro by half a century.
Anticipating his critics, Wilson writes in the preface:
The idea of “Higher Classes” of colored society is, it must be confessed, a novel one; and will, undoubtedly, excite the mirth of a prejudiced community on its annunciation. Nevertheless, it is perfectly correct and proper—and is only objectionable in its connection here, because the definition given of the “higher classes” is too liberal in its construction, and may be made to embrace a far greater number than it is intended to include. This, however, could not be well avoided…and a proper discrimination left to the intelligent reader.
Turning his attention to readers not heretofore categorized, Wilson observes:
Others…who like to see their neighbors’ merits caricatured, and their faults distorted and exaggerated, —will expect burlesque representations, and other laughter exciting sketches, and probably be thereby led to procure this little volume for the purpose of gratifying their penchant for the ludicrous.
Wilson, enjoying a moment of verbal jujitsu, concludes his preface with a nod to those seeking the ludicrous:
Now, while I desire not to put anything in the way of its sale, be the motive for purchasing what it may, yet all such are informed—but they must first procure it before they can possess the information! —that they will find upon perusal, that they had indulged in a very erroneous impression.
The New South Investigated (1888)
By David Augustus Straker
David Augustus Straker was born in Barbados, emigrated to the United States, and in 1871 earned a law degree from Howard University. He went on to become the first African American lawyer to appear before the Michigan Supreme Court. In 1890 Straker argued against the doctrine of “separate but equal,” asserting it was unconstitutional under Michigan law.
Introducing his coverage of Southern politics, economics, and social conditions, Straker clarifies his use of the term “New South”:
During these years, extending from 1875-1887, various and vast changes have taken place in this portion of our country, sufficient to entitle said change to the title “New South.” By this it is not intended to prove, as is sometimes erroneously alleged, that there is an entire transformation of the South from Old into New, so that there is no vestige of old customs, no trace of ancient laws or habits, no indicia of slavery or civil law, no old homesteads nor even family cast of countenance preserved. This is not the meaning of the “New South” as treated in the following pages, but it is intended only to portray the evident changes which have occurred since the emancipation of the slaves and the reconstruction of the States engaged in civil war.
Straker, providing context for his discussion of the changed South, describes the social conditions of the antebellum South:
The effect…of master and slave…was to keep one class of people rich and another poor; one class informed and another ignorant; one class in the light of morality, the other in darkness and degradation of superstition and sin; one class as capable of enjoying the advantages of exercising their talents in industry and enjoying the privileges of all advancement in knowledge, in learning, art and science; the other class as enduring physical labor, without any mental development thereby. These two divisions of conditions were occupied by what was known as the aristocratic whites or slave-holders, and the poor whites and the Negro or slave.
Staker argues the latter social division could be further sub-divided:
These two classes, which were termed the lower order of society, readily found a distinction among themselves and a difference between each other. A poor white man was of no esteem in the eyes of an aristocrat white man, who frequently openly showed this difference between a slave and a poor white man, in favor of the former and against the latter. This further produced a social difference between the pet slave and the poor white man, with this in favor of the poor white, that he was free. Moreover, the example set by the slave-owner, that slavery was the normal condition of the slave, taught the lowest white man that his skin was a premium upon which he could alone rely. Sans brains, culture or property, to try and oppress the Negro. There was never…any true harmony between the races in the South...
Straker goes on to make predictions about the potential for racial harmony and the status of African Americans in the New South.
How to Solve the Race Problem (1904)
This work represents the proceedings of the Washington Conference on the Race Problem in the United States, which met under the auspices of the National Sociological Society at the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church in Washington, D.C. on November 9-12, 1903.
The aim of this work is to adduce the facts, find the common ground, enunciate the principles, declare the doctrine and furnish the arguments for an equitable adjustment of this complicated and ever-present question.
The American race question has not been settled because there has been no well-directed and systemic attempt on the part of the people to settle it on an equitable basis. It can be settled on no other basis. Heretofore, the Negro has not been a portent factor in the equation of the problem for the reason that he has always been easy to manage. But it should be borne in mind that the Negro of future generations will be a very different variety of being from his ancestors of ante-bellum days. This must necessarily follow if it is admitted that he is capable of progress. The relation of master and servant being removed, the principle of equality before the law must take its place. The difficult thing is to find a basis of adjustment that will be fair and acceptable to all parties concerned.
A significant number of notable African American men—prominent at the turn of the century in "law, theology, medicine, literature, economics and the science of statecraft”—participated in the conference, and the volume features large photographs of many:
Among the conclusions reached by conference were these two:
That under our form of government there can be no recognition of a master class and a subject class or a master race and a subject race, but all classes and races must be treated as equals in the eyes of the law. Every statute should apply to the whole people without distinction of class or race.
That among a heterogeneous people, such as the population of the United States, racial antipathies are to be expected, and it is therefore, necessary that mutual concessions shall be made by opposing interests; always however, with the view of securing justice to all parties concerned.