"Ain't no money in the world can get me on my feet before we hit Memphis! And if I never see a
bale of cotton no more in life, that'll be too soon."
bale of cotton no more in life, that'll be too soon."
At Those Who Can See, we recently postulated that in a Euro society, Afros on average need stronger social controls than other groups in order to conform to Euro behavioral norms. Where these controls are tightest, such as a slavery system, black criminality will be lowest; and where such controls are loosest, black criminality will be very high. We also hypothesized that when a new freedom or right is obtained by Afros, a statistically significant percentage of them will 'act out' in response, in ways that include antisocial and criminal behavior.
We suggested four such periods in U.S. history in which to test our hypothesis:
(1) the Reconstruction South in the years after Emancipation
(2) Northern cities absorbing waves of southern Blacks fleeing Jim Crow during the 'Great Migration' (1910-1950)
(3) the post Civil Rights-era U.S. of the 1960s and 1970s
(4) the period following Barack Obama's inauguration as first Afro president of the U.S.
Last time, we examined (2), the change in crime statistics before and after the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Today, we shall look at period (1), the South post-Emancipation.
This is the most delicate of questions, as human bondage, while common throughout history, is seen with strong revulsion today in the West. Is it to be expected that he who moves from slavery to freedom will lash out in violence at his past oppressors? The more optimistic writers of the time, Black as well as White, believed the freed slave would quickly use his liberty to educate himself and lead a productive, civilized existence alongside 'the superior race.' The more pessimistic thought emancipation of Afros could only lead to chaos.
Who was right?
Empirical data on the question is tricky to come by, for a variety of reasons. And it is important to distinguish Reconstruction from the period following it. The years 1865-1876 were topsy-turvy for all the South, under military occupation and with illiterate Afros being shoehorned by the occupiers into State Houses and judgeships. Things didn't return to 'normal' until the late 1870s, and the men quoted below are mainly referring to the period beginning then. We shall start with their observations, then move on to the statistics.
I. Anti-social behavior after Reconstruction: Anecdotes
A general increase in crime
Post-Reconstruction era writings are rife with anecdotes of high black crime, from both Southern authors and visitors to the South. W.E.B. DuBois, 1899:
Throughout the land there has been since the war [between the states] a large increase in crime, especially in cities. ... The Negro began to rush to the cities in large numbers after 1880, and consequently the phenomena attendant on that momentous change of life are tardier in his case. His rate of criminality has in the last two decades risen rapidly...(1)
W.H. Collins, 1918:
It does, indeed, seem that a great part of the Negroes almost ran wild for they were free, but did not understand how to use their freedom. So, lazy, worthless, robbing, murdering gangs of them went prowling through the South. (2)
A.B. Hart, 1910:
Freedom [...] has combined with the influence of the press in popularizing crime, and perhaps with an innate African savagery, to make the black criminal a terrible scourge in the South.
Not so genial is the usual relation of Negro with Negro; both in town and city there is an amount of crude and savage violence of which the outside world knows little, and in which women freely engage. ... Practically every negro man carries a revolver and many of them bear knives or razors; hence, once engaged in a fracas, nobody knows what will happen. ... There is constant negro violence against the Whites, and they occasionally engage in pitched battles with white gangs. (3)
J.W. Garner, 1901:
Along, however, with the industrial progress of the negro, went an enormous increase in the amount of crime, which Governor Alcorn [of Mississippi] thought showed a "degree of barbarism truly shocking." Much of this Governor Alcorn attributed to the "barbarous practice" of carrying deadly weapons, which was almost universal among both races in the South at this time. (4)
Theft and larceny
Violent crime was said to be on the rise, but becoming even more widespread was theft:
The sudden emancipation of the slave population, and the too generous course of the government in furnishing them with the means of subsistence during their idleness, [...] The freedman was made to believe that liberty meant license, that as he had been freed from slavery by a powerful government, he would also be clothed and fed by it whether he chose to labor or not. ...As a result, the freedmen left the plantations and moved to the towns or military camps, refusing to make contracts or to fulfil them when made. The amount of robbery and larceny was alarming. The farmer's swine were stolen for pork, his cows were penned in the woods and milked, and his barns and cotton houses were broken open. (4)
Garner also notes:
Cotton stealing was so prevalent that the [Mississippi] legislature passed an act at this session making it unlawful in some counties to send cotton to market except in bales, or to buy cotton after dark. If brought in bags it was prima facie evidence of being stolen cotton. Other measures were provided for checking the crime. (4)
Garner explains the origins of the Kuklux Klan in Tennessee in 1866 as a reaction to Afros' new liberty:
The nocturnal perambulations of the freedmen, their habit of running away from labor contracts, the large amount of petit larceny among them at this time, the abandonment of their crops to attend political meetings, their participation in the loyal leagues [Union-founded political groups], and their alleged insolence to former masters created a necessity for some kind of restraint, as the whites believed. The Kuklux organization was designed to accomplish this purpose. (4)
Lynching of Lige Daniels; Carter, Texas; 1920
The back of the postcard reads, "He killed Earl's grandma. She was Florence's mother. Give this to Bud. From Aunt Myrtle."
The back of the postcard reads, "He killed Earl's grandma. She was Florence's mother. Give this to Bud. From Aunt Myrtle."
For British journalist William Archer, who took a trip through the American South in 1909, one fear was evoked again and again:
Here, then, I was face to face with the most hideous factor in the problem — that which keeps popular sentiment in the South chronically inflamed and exasperated. Again and again, at every turn, I came upon it ; not only in the shape of revolting stories, but in accounts of the constant and most burdensome precautions which the state of affairs imposes. (5)
The 'it' was black-on-white rape. As A.B. Hart put it,
The negro crime about which Southern newspapers print most, Southern writers say most, and which more than anything else aggravates race hatred, is violence to white women. Statistics are unfortunately too available, inasmuch as for twenty years the number of such crimes has been nearly balanced by the number of lynchings for that offense, ... From 1882 to 1903 these statistics show an average of thirty-two lynchings per year for violence or attempted violence to white women, though of late  they have been reduced to under twenty. [...] to this day one often hears it said: "Lynchings never occur except for the one crime." (3)
Former plantation owner T.N. Page insists:
It is a fact, which no one will deny, that the crime of rape was substantially unknown during the period of slavery, and was hardly known during the first years of freedom: it is the fatal product of new conditions. Twenty-five years ago [late 1870s] women in the South went unattended, with no more fear of attack than they have in New England. To-day, no woman in the South goes alone upon the highway out of sight of white men, except on necessity, and no man leaves his women alone in his house if he can help it. Over 500 white women and children have been assaulted in the South by Negroes within that time. (6)
Archer, the British journalist, collected a variety of anecdotes on the subject during his travels through the South:
In a population about evenly divided in North Carolina was a family of unpretending intelligent people. There was a school house only a mile and a half away, but they could not let their two daughters go to it. They could not let them stir away from home unprotected. They had to pay for their education at home, while at the same time they were being taxed for the education of the Negro children of the district. ' 'Do you think,' was asked a leading Negro educator, 'that those girls could safely have gone to school?'
'It would depend upon the district,' was the reply. 'In some districts the girls could have gone to school safely enough; in others, no.' This I think was a terrible admission. (5)
An acquaintance relates the situation in his home state of Louisiana:
'I have two sisters married there. The husband of one of them never dares to leave his home unless he takes his wife with him. The husband of the other is compelled to leave home for days at a time ; but he keeps a loaded shot-gun in every room in the house, and he has made his wife practice till she is a very fair shot, both with gun and revolver. There isn't a white man in the country districts that doesn't take similar precautions.' (5)
The 'new issue' Negroes
Some Southerners felt the freed slaves who'd grown up in the old system retained a work ethic and a dignified character that the 'new generation' (which came of age in the 1880s and 1890s), free of the old constraints, did not. T.N. Page, scion of an old plantation family who admittedly held a great nostalgia for the Old South, says:
This proposition is borne out also by the testimony of the great majority of the Southern whites who live in constant touch with the blacks; who have known them in every relation of life in a way that no one who has not lived among them can know them.
Universally, they will tell you that while the old-time Negroes were industrious, saving, and, when not misled, well-behaved, kindly, respectful, and self-respecting, and while the remnant of them who remain still retain generally these characteristics, the "new issue," for the most part, are lazy, thriftless, intemperate, insolent, dishonest, and without the most rudimentary elements of morality.
They unite further in the opinion that education such as they receive in the public schools, so far from appearing to uplift them, appears to be without any appreciable beneficial effect upon their morals or their standing as citizens. But more than this; universally, they report a general depravity and retrogression of the Negroes at large in sections [regions] in which they are left to themselves, closely resembling a reversion to barbarism. (6)
II. Anti-social behavior after Reconstruction: Statistics
"The Freedmen's Bureau! An Agency to keep the Negro in idleness at the expense of the white man [...] In 1864 and 1865, it cost the taxpayers 25 millions of dollars"-- Campaign poster
It is difficult to compare Afro crime statistics in the South from before and after the Civil War. W.D. Weatherford explains:
[Contemporaries] point to the record of the Negro during slavery, maintaining that few Negroes were criminals during that period. While the facts are not widely known there was, on the contrary, considerable criminality among slaves. The records do not show nearly all the crimes of the period, for all minor and many major offenses were dealt with by the master and never came to the attention of the courts. ... Under such conditions most masters [...] summarily dispensed "justice" as it seemed wise and expedient. (7)
We cannot insist strongly enough, then, that the following graphs are not meant to give a precise picture of black criminality in the South pre- and post-Emancipation. We simply offer them as an empirical counterpiece to the anecdotes related above, with appropriate caveats in mind:
- Most slave crimes never went through the court system, so pre-1865 numbers will be very low no matter what the real Afro crime level was.
- We have data back to 1840 for some states, 1850 for others. In 1860, unhappily, no racial data was gathered on the question. (Our graphs thus jump from 1850 to 1870.)
- Pre-1865 numbers include free Blacks as well as slaves.
- 'Prisoners per 100,000 of the population' means per that racial group in the population. 'Blacks 133' = 'for every 100,000 Blacks in the population that year, 133 are in prison.'
Prisoners per 100,000 of the population, pre- and post- Emancipation, in the states of Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Maryland, Kentucky, and Virginia
Points of note:
- The strong dip in prisoner numbers seen in 1904 holds true all across the country, as seen here. We are unsure of the cause.
- Globally, a smaller difference between black and white incarceration rates in the 'deep south' states than in the border states. On a national level, black prison rates were in fact highest not in the South but in the Midwest and West.
- Highest white imprisonment rates: Louisiana until 1875, and Maryland globally.
- From Reconstruction onwards, we see a trendline that appears, at first glance, to largely coalesce with the narratives presented above. More data is needed to draw firm conclusions.
* * *
In 1910 the Scottish journalist Archer, fresh from his travels through the American South, recounts:
''During the war," a very intelligent coloured man said to me, " the planters' wives and children were left to the protection of the negroes. Not a single case of outrage [rape] occurred, and scarcely a case of theft or breach of trust. Had we been the lecherous brutes we are now supposed to be, we should have written the darkest page in history, and brought the Southern armies home to the defence of their own hearthstones."
That is true. It is admitted on every hand that the conduct of the slaves during the war was, on the whole, excellent, ...But what matters the admission that tho malignant and bestial negro did not exist forty years ago, if it has to be admitted in the same breath that he exists to-day ?
What has bred him ? Who is responsible for his existence ? (5)
This question was asked again and again at the turn of the 20th century. Why does the criminality of southern Afros seem to have jumped since the War? Some argued the move towards the cities, which augments criminal behavior in every race, was the culprit. Others said that white southern governments hadn't spent nearly enough money on educating black youth properly, and this contributed to delinquency. Still others, whom we have quoted at length, saw in the childlike Negro a force of nature in need of control and guidance.
Former slave Tempe Herndon Durham, in an interview given in the 1930s near the end of her life, had this to say about Emancipation (spelling adjusted for readability):
'Freedom is all right, but the niggers was better off before surrender, 'cause then they was looked after and they didn't get in no trouble fighting and killing like they do these days. If a nigger cut up and got sassy in slavery times, his Ole Master gave him a good whipping and he went way back and sat down and behaved himself. If he was sick, Master and Missus looked after him, and if he needed store medicine, it was bought and given to him; he didn't have to pay nothing. They didn't even have to think about clothes nor nothing like that, they was woven and made and given to them. Maybe everybody's Master and Missus wasn't good as Master George and Missus Betsy, but they was the same as a mammy and pappy to us niggers.'--North Carolina Slave Narratives
Delusion? Brainwashing? Stockholm Syndrome? Or simply a cold-eyed view of reality? The author of our national anthem, Francis Scott Key, laments:
“I cannot remember more than two instances out of this large number [of my freed slaves], in which it did not appear that the freedom I earnestly sought for them was their ruin. It has been so with a very large proportion of all others I have known emancipated.”
These anecdotes are not presented in a spirit of mockery, but rather in an earnest effort to inform our policy-makers of what they once knew but have long forgotten: On North American soil live two peoples of vastly different evolutionary history, temperament, and cognitive ability. The most eminent thinkers of every age but ours have taken it as an evidence. It is a foolish or a superstitious era indeed which prefers to build exquisite 'clever sillies' rather than to look biological reality in the face. Our ancestors would likely not know what to make of the house of cards we've built under ourselves, other than to hope it falls quickly so we may come back to a more sensible foundation.
(1) Dubois, W. E.B. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1899.
(2) Collins, W.H., The Truth About Lynching and the Negro in the South, New York: Neale Publishing Co., 1918.
(3) Hart, A.B. The Southern South, NY: D. Appleton & Co., 1910.
(4) Garner, J.W. Reconstruction in Mississippi. NY: Macmillan. 1901.
(5) Archer, William. Through Afro-America, An English Reading of the Race Problem. London: Chapman&Hall, 1910.
(6) Page, Thomas Nelson. The Negro: The Southerner's Problem. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1904.
(7) Weatherford, W.D. and Johnson, Charles S., Race Relations:Adjustment of Whites and Negroes in the United States. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1934.
(8) Graphs, data source: U.S. compendia of the Census 1840, 1850, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1904