Racist Abolitionists?

One of the things that I work hard on in all my classes, but especially in my Civil War course, is to show that history is far more complex than the version taught at an early age.  I want my students to struggle with some of the distinctions and categories that they bring to the classroom.   My two Civil War sections are working on finishing up essays which examine the movie Glory and an article on the 54th by historian, Donald Yacovone.  Our discussion about the article was quite productive, but some of my students had a great deal of difficulty accepting the fact that the Lincoln administration refused to address the repeated calls for equal pay until the summer of 1864.   By then the 54th Massachusetts – as well as other units – had engaged in acts of mutiny, which led to the execution of at least two soldiers.  Especially difficult for my students was the reaction from within the black units from white officers who were known as staunch abolitionists.  One in particular was Colonel James Montgomery of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers and one-time brigade commander of the 54th.  Consider the following paragraph from the article:

"You ought to be glad to pay for the privilege to fight, instead of squabbling about money," Montgomery exclaimed.  He warned that the soldiers "refusal to accept what the government offered amounted to mutiny, "and mutiny is punishable with death."  Ignoring the regiment's enviable reputation, Montgomery declared that the Fifty-fourth still had not proved that blacks could fight as well as whites.  He confessed that black soldiers' "inherent" disadvantages left them with much to overcome.  with words that enraged all who heard them, Montgomery declared, "You are a race of slaves.  A few years ago your fathers worshipped snakes and crocodiles in Africa."  The men of the Fifty-fourth listened to Montgomery berate their very appearance: "Your features partake of a beastly character…. Your features can be improved.  Your beauty cannot recommend you.  Your yellow faces are evidences of rasaclity.  You should get rid of this bad blood," he recommended.  "My advice to you is the lightest of you must marry the blackest women."

Part of the problem for my students is the difficulty in acknowledging the important distinction between race and slavery.  We see this all the time when it comes to Lincoln where evidence of his racial outlook is taken as evidence of his position on the morality of slavery.   Failure to acknowledge the distinction leads to all kinds of absurd conclusions surrounding Lincoln's motivation and handling of slavery during the Civil War.  Republicans argued against slavery in a number of ways, but their position on the issue did not necessarily have anything to do with race or, more specifically, a belief in racial equality.  In fact, many Republicans harbored deep-seated racial prejudices that surfaced at different times throughout the war. 

Abolitionists, however, present us with a more difficult challenge since these are the people that we have been taught to believe transcended nineteenth-century racism.  We emphasize William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and others, but in focusing narrowly we fail to acknowledge the wide spectrum of belief regarding race.  There are a number of ways to approach the complexity of the issue from analyzing place of origin, economic and social identification as well as religious affiliation.  All of this, however, takes time and usually only leads to more questions and a muddier picture of the past.

These are crucial teaching moments.  Much of our time as history teachers is spent trying to fill in a picture of the past that is meaningful and sufficiently complex.  At the same time it is our job to identify and embrace by example those moments where answers are not forthcoming.  I don't think we do enough of this in the classroom.  As authority figures we are expected to have answers.  Most of my students know when I do not have an answer for them.  In response to a question I usually just stare blindly back at the student for a few awkward moments after which I take a moment to write the question down on my legal pad. 

The lesson for the day: Questions and confusion matter as much, if not more, than answers.

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5 comments… add one
  • Allison Bridges-Matthews Feb 19, 2016 @ 14:32

    Im late but this is very helpful. I just discovered Hinton Rowan Helper and reading his work its clear he is racist but a brief bio describes him as critic of slavery, another calls him an abolitionist. I was so very confused and then i cam across H. C. Bailey’s “Hinton Rowan Helper: Abolitionist-Racist” (1965). Now I know that Lincoln didn’t free the slaves because he hated slavery but I never would have come up with he term Abolitionist-Racist. Today, I have become a little more informed.

  • chris Oct 30, 2008 @ 9:36

    Kevin it’s not much, just a short slideshow/powerpoint about daily life and then a discussion about it. The students like to get on rant about how hard the daily life was. Then we talk about slavery… and it leads nicely into the discussion.

  • Harry Oct 30, 2008 @ 8:51

    Interesting post. It reminds me of my surprise when reading, a few years ago, Oates’ “To Purge this Land with Blood”, a biography of John Brown. For the first time I realized that the term “abolotionist” has come to be used in ways similar to “liberal” and “conservative” today, a broad brushing of myriad thoughts and positions of the folks who, for wahtever reason, fall into either camp. It seems the word could be defined differently for each person to whom it was applied. There was much disagreement between people we might call abolitionsists on what to do with the black man. Some few promoted complete freedom and equal rights, others colonization within the country, others deportation back to Africa. Even most of the Kansas settlers who were against slavery were actually against slaves OR free blacks from settling within the territory. And there was lots of infighting between groups within the “abolitionist” universe.

  • Kevin Levin Oct 29, 2008 @ 21:28

    Hey Chris, thanks for the positive feedback. When you have some time I would love to know what you do with your students to help them imagine the 1860s.

  • Chris Oct 29, 2008 @ 20:52

    Excellent post Kevin. That distinction or separation of slavery and racism I too have found that students struggle with it. Younger (high school level I guess) students want to quickly assume things and, as you say, want an answer so they can write it down and memorize it for a future test.

    One of the most frustrating things for a young mind to accept with history is the understanding that most of the time the answer to a question (if there is a good one) only leads to more questions and most of which don’t have an answer that is readily available.

    When I teach this time period, and indeed many others, I tell my students to imagine themselves in 1860 America (and we do an activity), and then I flat out tell them there is virtually no way they would NOT be racist. After the stunned silence I continue, pointing out that since the day they were born they would know nothing else. They might be able to see the evil of slavery as Lincoln and others, but they would be VERY unlikely (if not completely) to accept blacks as their social and/or political equal.

    This usually blows them away. Anyway, thanks for letting me share.


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