History of Segregation Philosophy (1934)

History of Segregation Philosophy (1934)

Race segregation in the United States too often presents itself as an individual problem; a question of my admission to this church or that theater; a question as to whether I shall live and work in Mississippi or New York for my own enjoyment, emolument or convenience. In fact this matter of segregation is a group matter with long historic roots. When Negroes were first brought to America in any numbers, their classification was economic rather than racial. They were in law and custom classed with the laborers, most of whom were brought from Europe under a contract which made them practically serfs. In this laboring class there was at first no segregation, there was some inter-marriage and when the laborer gained his freedom, he became in numbers of cases a landholder and a voter.

The first distinction arose between laborers who had come from Europe and contracted to work for a term of years, and laborers from Africa and the West Indies who had made no contract. Both classes were often held for life, but soon there arose a distinction between servants for a term of years and servants for life. Even their admission to a Christian church organization was usually considered as emancipating a servant for life, and thus again the purely racial segregation was cut across by religious considerations.

Finally, however, slavery became a matter of racial caste, so that white laborers served for definite terms and most black workers served for life. But even here anomaly arose in the case of the small number of Negroes who were free. For a while these free Negroes were not definitely segregated from other free workers, but gradually they were forced together as a caste, holding themselves, on the one hand, strictly away from the slaves, and on the other, being excluded more and more severely from inter-course with whites of all degrees.

The result was that there grew up in the minds of the free Negro class a determination and a prejudice which has come down to our day. They fought bitterly with every means at their command against being classed with the mass of slaves. It was for this reason that they objected to being called Negroes. Negroes was synonymous with slaves. They were not slaves. They objected to being coupled with black folk by legislation or custom. Any such act threatened their own freedom. They developed, therefore, both North and South as a separate, isolated group. In large Southern cities, like New Orleans, Savannah and Charleston, they organized their own society, established schools and churches, and made themselves a complete segregated unit, except in their economic relations where they earned a living among the whites as artisans and servants, rising here and there to be semi-professional men and small merchants. The higher they rose and the more definite and effective their organization, the more they protested against being called Negroes or classed with Negroes, because Negroes were slaves.

In the North, the development differed somewhat, and yet followed mainly the same lines. The groups of free colored folk in Boston, Newport, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cincinnati, all formed small, carefully organized groups, with their own schools and churches, with their own social life, with their own protest against being classed as Negroes. As the mass of Negroes became free in the Northern states, certain decisions were forced upon these groups. Take for instance, Philadelphia. An event happened in April, 1787, which may be called by the American Negro, the Great Decision. The free colored people of Philadelphia at that time were making a desperate fight for recognition and decent social treatment.

Two of their leaders, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, had proffered their services during the terrible epidemic in 1792, and partly at their own expense, helped bury the deserted dead of the white folk. The Mayor properly commended them. Both these men worshipped at St. George’s Methodist Church, then at 4th and Vine Streets. For years they had been made welcome; but as gradual emancipation progressed in Pennsylvania, Negroes began to pour in to the city from the surrounding country, and black Christians became too numerous at St. George’s. One Sunday morning during prayer, Jones and Allen were on their knees, when they were told they must get up and go to the gallery where hereafter black folk would worship. They refused to stir until the prayer was over, and then they got up and left the church. They never went back.

Under these circumstances, what would you have done, Dear Reader of 1934? There were several possibilities. You might have been able to impress it upon the authorities of the church that you were not like other Negroes; that you were different, with more wealth and intelligence, and that while it might be quite all right and even agreeable to you that other Negroes should be sent to the gallery, that you as an old and tried member of the church should be allowed to worship as you pleased. If you had said this, it probably would have had no effect upon the deacons of St. George’s.

In that case, what would you have done? You could walk out of the church but whither would you walk? There were no other white churches that wanted you. Most of them would not have allowed you to cross their threshold. The others would have segregated you in the gallery or at a separate service. You might have said with full right and reason that the action of St. George’s was un-Christian and despicable, and dangerous for the future of democracy in Philadelphia and in the United States. That was all quite true, and nevertheless its statement had absolutely no effect upon St. George’s.

Walking out of this church, these two men formed an organization. It was called the Free African Society. Virtually it was confined to a colored membership, although some of the Quakers visited the meetings from time to time and gave advice. Probably there was some discussion of taking the group into the fellowship of the Quakers, but liberal as the Quakers were, they were not looking for Negro proselytes. They had had a few in the West Indies but not in the United States. The excluded Negroes found themselves in a dilemma. They could do one of two things: They could ask to be admitted as a segregated group in some white organization; or they could form their own organization. It was an historic decision and they did both.

Richard Allen formed from the larger part of the group, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which today has 750,000 members and is without doubt the most powerful single Negro organization in the United States. Absalom Jones formed St. Thomas Church as a separate Negro church in the Episcopal communion, and the church has had a continuous existence down to our day.

Which of these two methods was best will be a matter of debate. There are those who think that it was saving something of principle to remain in a white church, even as a segregated body. There are others who say that this action was simply a compromise with the devil and that having been kicked out of the Methodist Church and not allowed equality in the Episcopal Church, there was nothing for a self-respecting man to do but to establish a church of his own.

No matter which solution seems to you wisest, segregation was compulsory, and the only answer to it was internal self-organization; and the answer that was inevitable in 1787, is just an inevitable in 1934.

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1934. “History of Segregation Philosophy.” The Crisis. 41(3):85–86.