“The Black Race Must Be Its Own Deliverer”

Yesterday I suggested that even though Robert Gould Shaw’s parents remained committed to the abolitionist cause in the 25 years leading up to the Civil War, the family had very little connection to the Black community in Boston and elsewhere. Robert did not share his parent’s reformist zeal, but he turned out to be the one member of the family who experienced a level of familiarity and fellowship with Black men through his brief command of the 54th MVI.

I’ve always found it difficult to teach my students that a commitment to abolitionism did not necessarily translate into a willingness to share the same public and private spaces with African Americans. We can see this in a reported incident involving Frank Shaw, while he was president of the National Freedmen’s Relief Association, which was located in New York City during the war.

This story was published in the New York Weekly Anglo-African on November 5, 1864 and written by P.B. Randolph, M.D. [Thanks to historian Jonathan White for sending along a copy of the original article. You can also read it in historian Donald Yacovone’s collection, Freedom’s Journey. Randolph and Frank Potter visited Shaw in his office seeking information about how to establish schools in the South for former slaves. You can read about how the two men were received by Shaw for yourself.

What should we make of this account?  First, we should be careful about any conclusions we draw from it. Frank Shaw may have simply gotten up on the wrong side of the bed that day. The specific individuals in Shaw’s office and their conversation may have led to the rude reception received by Randolph and Potter. We don’t know what they were talking about even though it was reported as a ‘polite’ conversation. The two individuals may experienced Frank’s routine office behavior while at work.

It is also very possible that Shaw was taken off guard by two Black men, who apparently entered his office unannounced. Perhaps, in his mind, they had violated an unstated racial code of conduct shared by the other men sitting around the room. We know when the article was published, but we don’t know when the visit took place and how much time lapsed between the two. Shaw apparently made no attempt to contact the two men after they left to apologize and/or schedule another meeting, though it is also possible that he was unaware of their identities.

What we do know for sure is that Randolph and Potter both remained convinced that their “color alone was the pretext for the insult.” This was likely not their first such experience with the white abolitionist community. While it is not conclusive a close reading of this article, along with an understanding of the relevant historical context, supports taking the two men at their word.

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6 comments… add one
  • DG Foulke Jan 18, 2022 @ 6:34

    It is commendable that you counsel caution into reading too much into Randolph’s account of the encounter. Among the many many things we (I ?) do not know, is Randolph’s history writ large, or writ smaller (e.g., that week or month or year). Certainly, it would seem from the opening sentence -slash- paragraph of his letter that he had preexisting strongly held views on white men (or certain sorts of white men); be those views excellently founded, well-founded, or otherwise, common experience leads one to believe it unlikely that whatever their shape and texture, they did not fail to “inform” how Randolph integrated new encounters or information into his world-view.

    Or, perhaps, we are to take him most strictly at his declaration that he was “positively assured” to mean he was “expressly assured” that his color was the sole pretext for the insulting behavior. That seems to me doubtful, but one can speculate at will, I should imagine. (And folks often do.)

    • Kevin Levin Jan 18, 2022 @ 6:39

      These are all great points. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Suzanne Crockett Jan 18, 2022 @ 6:19

    Depending on the grade level, it can be very difficult to get our students to understand, as you say, “a commitment to abolitionism did not necessarily translate into a willingness to share the same public and private spaces with African Americans.“ We, and they, want abolitionists to be heroic in every way, without allowing for the culture that worked against that.
    Dr. King found that still to be the case in the North of his day. “ King highlighted his disillusionment with officials like Yorty and Wagner who ‘welcomed me to their cities and showered praise on the heroism of Southern Negroes. Yet when the issues were joined concerning local conditions, only the language was polite; the rejection was firm and unequivocal’ He zeroed in on the differential national outrage at police brutality in the South versus the North, despite Black protest: ‘As the nation, Negro & white, trembled with outrage at police brutality in the South, police misconduct in the North was rationalized, tolerated, & usually denied.’” https://www.aaihs.org/martin-luther-king-jr-s-challenge-to-his-liberal-allies/
    Will we ever root out America’s original sin? As a white teen in the late ‘60s, in desegregated schools in northern Virginia, I thought it had been accomplished. How foolish I was. 😢😔

    • Kevin Levin Jan 18, 2022 @ 6:41

      In this case there is a gulf between professed beliefs and action. For Shaw’s parents it was never a question of whether they would act on their beliefs. Both found ways to contribute to the end of slavery, though they apparently found very little opportunity to engage alongside African Americans. Thanks for the comment.

  • Glenn Brasher Jan 18, 2022 @ 5:46

    Considering that Shaw was always openly comfortable with where and with whom his son had been buried with, I’m not sure I’d read this the same way. As you mention, he may have been having a very private conversation that these men interrupted. BUT even if they were indeed chased away because of color and violation of prevailing racial (or class) decorum (as they clearly believed), we also need to be careful not to paint all white abolitionists with one broad brushstroke. I’m not saying that you’ve done that here (you certainly haven’t), but because there are so many who are ready to do that in the most negative light, it becomes all the more important that we point out the wide diversity of opinions within the abolition community (as within most groups, not matter what they are). As you note, many white abolitionists fell fall short of promoting racial equality (both legally and socially), but yet many others did not have that particular failing. I think it is always important to make that clear.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 18, 2022 @ 5:52

      Hi Glenn,

      These are all good points with which we are in complete agreement. I appreciate you bringing up Robert’s burial. It’s something to think about in this connection, though I am not sure that Robert’s burial alongside Black men translates into understanding the expectations/assumptions that governed how Frank navigated public and private spaces with African Americans.

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