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By Chaplain Turner
Head Quarters 1st U.S.C.T
Roanoke Island, N.C., July 22, ‘65
Christian Recorder: August 5, 1865
Mr. Editor:--For some time I have cherished an idea which I hesitated to make public, owing to some misgivings which I had about its….expediency. And nothing less than a profound conviction of its irrefutable utility would induce me to advocate a policy, untried and vexed with prevaricate apprehensions; especially one involving, to some extent, the destiny of my people. For I hold, that this is no time to advance superficial theories, wholly impracticable, or, if not so, fraught with no ultimate benefit to a race, upon whom are fixed the eyes of the world, and to whose destinies are linked the unconjectured issues of unborn millions.
The addition of the liberated people in the South has engaged the attention, and become a cause of much concern, by thousands of Northern philanthropists. Hence, the rise….given to such a vast number of….associations; for the number and variety of millions bent upon the ultimate amelioration of the condition of the colored race in this country seems to have sprung into existence by strong impulse and to have spread with unrivaled celerity.
And to calculate their good; yea, the unquestionable mutual good done by the Christian because of teachers and books, including Bibles….primers, spellers, daily and weekly papers, clothing of every description, and missionaries, accompanied by millions of fervent petitions to God for success and His constant, watchful care, would paralyze the most florid pen of heavenly messengers, and then the half would not be told. The progress made in that direction, first contemplated in what many thought to be a dubious project, has so attested the utility of the scheme, inaugurated in its incipiency by the precious few, that the most vacillating have become settled on that subject.
Thus, we see religious bodies of every faith and order, and even the infidel and skeptic, including humanitarians of every form, have made the colored race a central object of regard and commiseration; erecting a monument to their honor more lasting than the pyramids of Egypt.
Yet there is a broad arena of work still lying before us. Theoretical, if not practical, freedom has been secured to the colored race, and the nation pledged to its maintenance. The dying groans and crimson gore of ten thousand colored heroes, clotted in the mangled carcasses of the ball-riddled defenders of the nation’s rights, ask in tones of thunder for their children’s rights, at the hands of the same nation, and better that she drink hemlock and bitter gall than prove treacherous to their demands.
But all this guarantee of liberty, this superficial freedom, this dreamy idea of “do as you please,” does not half cancel the debt of obligation. The societies and benevolent institutions already referred to have done much, yea, wonders. They have established several schools, but have not met the wants of our people by a hundred degrees. They have educated, and are still educating thousands, but millions have not seen their teachers yet. They have given them raiment by thousands, but millions are still clad in the coarse, tattered garments of slavery. These people, too, at least three millions of them, are without money, land, homes, and houses; and many, to all noble purposes of life, are insensible. They want instruction in ordinary affairs, viz: economy, industry, and thriftiness of every species. They need to be taught the value of wealth, and to desire the acquisition of money; for I hold it to be a part of our nature to strive after this. They want to know what to do with freedom, its resources, responsibilities, liabilities, dangers, and securities. It is not natural that a people who have been held as chattels for two hundred years, should thoroughly comprehend the limits of freedom’s empire: the scope is too large for minds so untutored to enter upon at once.
We find races, free from time immemorial, boasting of their noted ancestors and civilization, handling the tool of freedom quite injudiciously, at times, for their own interests. Then, to expect it at once from a people, for ages subjected to the most inhuman vassalage, is like trying to extort manhood of an infant. I do not expect a high state of things, in this day at most: it will be impossible for the present generation to become wonders of the world. Nothing more than a partial state of civilization and moral attainment can be hoped for by the most sanguine. But a medium state of things can be obtained by timely efforts, managed by that kind of dexterity and skill which thoroughly looks into and contemplates the necessities of a people, whose surrounding hitherto have made other minds better arbiters than their own, in matters affecting their individual and collective welfare.
As one of the bastion fulcrums, to this great scheme of reformatory elevation, I would suggest and urge the propriety of the government, and all associations thus engaged, employing educated colored preachers and lecturers, to travel through the South, and collect and address colored assemblies on all topics of consideration in the arena of man’s sphere of action. I mean morally, economically, politically, philosophically, &c., but especially those bearing upon his industrial pursuits. I argue the peculiar fitness of the colored man for that position because about him the most incredulous would have no doubt; Neither could he be bribed by the deceptive flippancy of the oily-tongued slaveocrats, who too often becloud the understanding of the whites. No sumptuous tables, fine charmers, attractive misses, springy buggies, or swinging carriages would filch the time and labor he came to bestow because he would find his level only among the colored race. Being accessible, too, to their huts or homes, weddings, parties, promenades, and all other social gatherings, his influence and personal identification with them would go further than the white man’s.
Thus, with twenty-five colored men of good common sense and education, scattered through the South; say ten preachers and fifteen lecturers whose entire business it would be to treat all subjects after their own manner, the moral, political, and social status of the colored race would everywhere be enhanced more towards making them good, intelligent citizens, in one year, than it would be in five, if left entirely to depend upon contingencies. There are thousands of them who cherish old slavish habits and ideas, about which they need plain talk. Even to children the most simple instructions, such as attention to personal habits, cleanliness, general deportment in conversation, domestic economy, attention to their own business, &c., would have a good effect.
Then, they need to be told all about virtue, chastity, honor, the value of a promise made, the contemptibleness of dishonesty and indolence. But it is useless to enumerate; suffice it to say, they need instruction in everything, and especially the little things of life, such points of attention as thousands would never stoop to surmise.
But, someone may say, why do you represent the freedmen as being more ignorant than any people I have heard of? No, that is not my intention; I claim for them superior ability. I have heard the greatest ministers and statesmen of this country, from Henry Ward Beecher and Charles Sumner down, but I have yet to hear greater eloquence that I have heard from the lips of Austin Allen, a black slave of South Carolina. In short, the ablest historian, the greatest orator, and the most skillful architect and mechanic I have ever seen, were all slaves in the South. Having traveled through all the slave States except Texas, prior to the war, my observations have been extensive; thus I speak what I know, and the fact that one negro is smart argues the possibility of another, and another ad infinitum.
But the cases referred to are such exceptions as mastered circumstances, and rose above their own level, extraordinary projections.
Again, if we go into cities such as Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans, &c., and make the colored people their samples of their intellectual status, in the main, we will have no use for such arguments as I have adduced. But leave these cities, go to the cotton field, rice swamps, sugar plantations, and find, as I have found, by the hundreds, men, and women fifty years old, and never five miles from some of their huts, except when they went to another farm to work. If that will not do, come here to Roanoke Island, where there are about four thousand colored people, and you will soon see the importance of my suggestion.
As this article is already too long, I must close by reasserting that twenty-five colored orators employed by the Government or associations, to traverse the South through, and lecture to the people on all subjects pertaining to their interest, would affect a revolution for the better, faster and more surely than any other agency or instrumentality in the circle of benevolent efforts yet engaged in it. I regard it as the one great lack, and if Congress would make an appropriation of $25,000 a year for the employment of such men, it would pay the nation quadruply; in less than five years it would yield the government an annual benefit of $100,000. The great revenue growing out of the intelligence of the people would bring the nation inexhaustible wealth and strength.
I do not impose this as a duty upon the government, nor would I have called the government in question on the subject, had it not created a bureau claiming special interest in the freed people, and engaged white men in reforming their condition. So this is only, in my opinion, a more effective means, looking to the same end as that already in operation.