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Josephine Silone Yates on the Achievements of African Americans in the 19th Century - 1902

From Jone Johnson Lewis,
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Essay by Josephine Silone Yates 1902

This essay is reprinted from Twentieth Century Negro Literature, edited by D. W. Culp (Dr. Daniel Wallace Culp), published 1902.  The biographical sketch of Josephine Silone Yates is presumably written by Culp.  Related articles on this site include:


Did the Negro Make, in the Nineteenth Century, Achievements Along the Lines of Wealth, Morality, Education, Etc., Commensurate with His Opportunities? If So, What Achievements Did He Make?

BY Josephine Silone Yates.

Mrs. Josephine Yates, youngest daughter of Alexander and Parthenia Reeve-Silone, was born in Mattiluck, Suffolk County, N. Y., where her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were long and favorably known as individuals of sterling worth, morally, intellectually and physically speaking. On the maternal side Mrs. Yates is a niece of the Rev. J. B. Reeve, D. D., of Philadelphia.

Mrs. Silone, a woman of education and great refinement of character, began the work of educating this daughter in her quiet, Christian home, and both parents hoping that she might develop into a useful woman spared no pains in endeavoring to secure for her the education the child very early showed a desire to obtain; and with this end in view she was sent to Newport, R. I., in her fourteenth year, having already spent one year at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, and Mrs. Coppin, then Miss Fannie Jackson, with her vigorous intellect, aided the inspiration the mother had begun. In 1877 Miss Silone graduated as valedictorian of a large class from Rogers High School of Newport; and although the only Colored member of her class, and the first graduate of color, invariably she was treated with the utmost courtesy by teachers, scholars and such members of the School Board as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, T. Coggeshall, and others.

Two years later she graduated from the Rhode Island State Normal School in Providence, and soon began her life work as a teacher. During the eight years spent in Lincoln Institute, Jefferson City, Mo., she had charge of the Department of Natural Science, and was the first woman to be elected to a professorship in that institution.

In 1889 Miss Silone was married to Prof. W. W. Yates, principal of Phillips School, Kansas City, Mo., and removed to that city, where since she has been engaged in either public or private school work.

From the age of nine years she has been writing for the press, and her articles have appeared in many leading periodicals—for a long time under the signature "R. K. Potter." Mrs. Yates has long been a zealous club worker and is well known as a lecturer East and West. She was one of the organizers and the first President of the Kansas City Woman's League; and in the summer of 1901 was elected President of the National Association of Colored Women, which organization she had already served as Treasurer for a period of four years.

Mrs. Yates is the mother of two children, whose education she carefully superintends, and is ever ready to comfort the sick or to stop her round of duties to give counsel or render help along any line possible to the many young people and others who seek her door.


The measure of the success of a race is the depths from which it has come, and the condition under which it has developed. To know what the Negro actually accomplished in the nineteenth century, one must know something of his life and habitat previous to the year 1619, when against his will or wish, he was brought to the Virginian coast; must also know his life as a slave, and his opportunities since emancipation.

History shows that the Negroes brought from Africa to this country to be sold into slavery were at the time in a more or less primitive stage of uncivilized life; while the methods used to capture and transport them to this "land of the free and home of the brave," recently revived through the vivid pen pictures and other illustrations running in serial form in Scribner's, Pearson's and other reliable periodicals (accounts which bear the impress of truth, and are hardly liable to the charge of having been written within too close range of time and space, or vice versa, to be strictly truthful), indicate the demoralizing and debasing effects of the "system" from its initial period, this followed up by the blighting influences of slave life, even under the most favorable conditions, for nearly two hundred and fifty years, left upon Negro life and character just the traits it would have left upon any other people subjected to similar conditions for the same length of time.

It may be said, and with truth, that slavery gave to the Negro some of the arts of civilized life; but it must be added, that, denying him the inalienable rights of manhood, denying him the right to the product of his labor, it left him no noble incentive to labor at these arts, and thus tended to render him improvident, careless, shiftless, in short, to demoralize his entire nature.

It is further stated that the system gave him Christianity. Did it give him piety? Could it give him morality in the highest sense of these terms?

Constantine could march the refractory Saxons to the banks of a stream and give them their option between Christianity and the sword, but the haughty monarch soon found that a religion forced in this peremptory and wholesale fashion did not change the moral nature of the soldier; and we submit that Christianity, language, and the arts of civilized life, absorbed amidst the debasing influences of a cruel and infamous bondage could not be productive of a harmonious development of body, mind and soul; of strong moral and intellectual fiber; or of ideas of the dignity of labor; of habits of thrift, economy, the careful expenditure of time and money; or knowledge of the intimate relationship of these two great factors in the process of civilization. These are results attained only where the rights of manhood and womanhood are acknowledged and respected. The lack of these results or basic impulses to advancement represent defects in the Negro character, preventing a more rapid development in the nineteenth century and directly traceable to his enslaved state; and the origin or cause, the growth and subsequent development of these, and other defects, must be taken into consideration before the Negro is stamped as the greatest criminal on earth, wholly irredeemable; before he is condemned in wholesale manner for not having made more rapid strides toward advanced civilization in little more than one generation of freedom. Indeed, it speaks well for the intrinsic merit of the race, that although public opinion freely admits that the natural outcome of bondage is a cowardly, thieving, brutal, or abject specimen of humanity, even in the darkest hours of slavery, there were many, many, high-born souls who, if necessary, at the price of life itself, maintained their integrity, rose superior to their surroundings, taught these same lofty sentiments to others.

Emancipation and certain constitutional amendments brought freedom to the material body of the erstwhile slave, but the soul, the higher self, could not be so easily freed from the evils that slavery had fastened upon it through centuries of debasement; and because of this soul degradation the Negro, no less than the South, needed to be physically, mentally and morally reconstructed.

Reconstruction, the eradication of former characteristics, the growth and development of new and more favorable ones, is with any race the work of time. Generations must pass, and still it need not be expected that the process will be full and complete; meanwhile, what measure of success is the Negro achieving? Were his achievements in the nineteenth century, educationally, morally, financially and otherwise at all commensurate with his opportunities?

The year 1863 saw four million Negroes come forth from a state of cruel bondage with little of this world's goods that constitute capital; with few of those incentives to labor that universally are requisites to the full and free development of labor and capital. The knowledge the Negro had of agriculture, of domestic life, and in some cases, his high-grade mechanical skill, gave him something of a vantage ground, but for nearly two hundred and fifty years he had been so "worked" that it would be expecting too much to demand that he at once comprehend the true dignity of labor. Nor was it to be expected that to his untutored mind freedom and work were terms to be intimately associated. Then there was a certain amount of constitutional inertia to be overcome, a natural heritage of the native of a tropical or semi-tropical climate, but quite incompatible with the fierce competition of American civilization, or with the material conditions of a people who owned in the entire country forty years ago, only a few thousand dollars; and among whom education was limited to the favored few whose previous estate either of freedom, or by other propitious circumstance, had rendered its acquisition possible. Organizations for business enterprise or any purpose of reform and advancement, outside of the Northern cities, was practically unknown.

Evidently one of the first things to be done by which the Negro could be reconstructed and become an intelligent member of society was to educate him; teach him to provide for himself; making him more provident and painstaking; teaching him self-reliance and self-control; teaching him the value of time, of money, and the intimate relationship of the two. Certainly not a light task. These lessons could only be learned in the practical school of experience, then, not in a day. And what has been accomplished? Forty years ago there was not in the entire Southland a single Negro school; before the close of the nineteenth century there were twenty thousand Negro school houses, thirty thousand Negro teachers, and three million Negro school children happily wending their way to the "Pierian Spring."

Under the "system," generally speaking, it had been considered a crime to teach the Negro to read or write; and the census of 1870 shows that only two-tenths of all the Negroes of the United States, over ten years of age, could write. Ten years later, the proportion had increased to three-tenths of the whole number; while in 1890 only a generation after emancipation, forty-three per cent of those ten years and over were able to read and write; this proportion before the close of the century reached forty-five per cent.

To wipe out forty-five per cent of illiteracy in less than forty years; to find millions of children in the common schools; to find twenty thousand Negroes learning trades under the soul inspiring banner of free labor; to find other thousands successfully operating many commercial enterprises; among these, several banks, one cotton mill, and one silk mill; to find Negroes performing four-fifths of the free labor of the South, thus becoming a strong industrial factor of the section is to furnish proof of achievements in the nineteenth century of which we need not be ashamed; and considering the restrictions of labor unions, the fields or classes of labor from which the Negro is practically barred regardless of section, quite commensurate with the opportunities afforded him during the period in question.

Within forty years the system of instruction in the American schools has undergone some radical changes for the better; and if the system in vogue at the beginning of this period, with the study of the classics as the pivotal point, did not fit the practical needs of the average Anglo-Saxon youth, with his heritage of centuries of culture, it is not strange if some blunders were made in attempting to shape this same classical education into a working basis for a people emerging from a state of bondage in which to impart even the elements of education, was considered a crime, generally speaking.

Industrial, manual, or technical training had not, forty years ago, taken firm hold upon the educational system, and school courses for Negroes were planned after classical models, perhaps better suited in many instances for students of a more advanced mentality and civilization; for humanity at large can scarcely hope to escape the slow and inevitable stages and processes of evolution. Individual genius, however, bound by no law, may leap and bound from stage to stage; and we point with pride to Negroes whose classic education in the early decades of freedom served not only to prove their own individual ability, but the capacity of the race for, and susceptibility to, a high degree of culture at a time when such demonstration was a prime necessity.

We do not consider that any mistake was made in at once providing for the classical or higher education of those who were mentally able to receive it, and as brilliant achievements of the nineteenth century from an educational standpoint, we refer with a keen sense of gratification to the two thousand five hundred and twenty-five or more college graduates who are helping to raise the standard of the race from all points of view; to the real genius of the race that has given us Douglass, Langston, Bruce, Washington, Tanner, Scarborough, Page, Grisham, Miller, Dubois, Wright, Bowen, Crogman, Johnson, Dunbar, Chestnutt and others too numerous to mention, whose names should be enshrined in the hearts of present and future generations; to the forty thousand Negro students pursuing courses in higher institutions of learning; to the twelve thousand pursuing classical courses; to the one hundred and twenty thousand taking scientific courses; to the one hundred and fifty-six institutions for the higher education of Negroes; to the two thousand practicing physicians; to the three hundred newspapers and the five hundred books written and published by Negroes; to a gradually increasing discrimination in all those matters of taste and form which mark the social status of a people, and give to the individual, or the mass, the, perhaps, indefinable, but at the same time, distinctive, stamp of culture.

These achievements, alone, within less than forty years of freedom, serve to demonstrate our fitness for civilization, and also, that as the years pass there is a still greater necessity for Negroes who possess a broad, a liberal, a well balanced education; and at the same time a similar need for Negroes possessing shrewd, business ability; a high degree of mechanical skill; extensive knowledge of industrial arts and sciences, and of profitably invested capital.

From the early years of freedom a few leaders, as at Hampton, realized, that the great mass of Negroes needed first of all experimental knowledge of the dignity of labor such as could never result from labor performed under the conditions of slavery; that they needed to know more of skilled labor in order to be able to meet and enter the fierce competition of American industrial life, or even to live upon the plane of American civilization; and in spite of adverse criticism, these leaders proceeded to establish industrial and manual training schools for the Negro, with such elementary training as from their point of view seemed most beneficial. That the methods chosen have been rich in results, it is only necessary to know something of the deep and extensive influence of Hampton, Tuskegee, Normal, and other industrial schools, in directly, or indirectly, improving the environment and daily life of the masses.

The insidious and ultimate effect of slavery upon the normal and spiritual nature of the enslaved is to blunt, to entirely efface the finer instincts and sensibilities, to take away those germs of manhood and womanhood that distinguish the lowest savage from the beasts of the field. Continue this soul-debasement for centuries, deny the slave the right to home, the right to family—ties which universally prove the greatest stimulus to courage, patriotism, morality, civilization—then declare the emancipated slave a brute, for whom education does nothing, because in little more than a generation he has not wiped out all of the degradation that the conditions of generations instilled and intensified!

Criminologists, discussing the apparent increase of crime in this country, assert that this apparent increase is largely due to the more complete records kept of criminals within the last forty years than formerly, and the better facilities for ferreting out crime and for subjecting offenders to the penalty of the law; and it may be added, in the Negro's case, as recently stated by a Kansas City judge, a native of Georgia, noted for his unprejudiced views and fair dealing, "It takes less evidence to convict a Negro than it does a white man; and a longer term in the penitentiary will be given a Negro for the same offense than will be given a white offender. That is why I have been so frequently compelled to cut down the sentence of Negroes." The entire history of the chain-gang system corroborates these statements—a system that helps to increase the reported number of criminals; and although race riots, lynchings and massacres may seem to indicate the opposite to the uninitiated, the Negro is not a lawless element of society. In the United States a natural restlessness has possessed him since emancipation, and it requires time to work out and adjust conditions under which he can develop normally from the standpoint of morality as well as from other points of view. Meanwhile, the prime necessity to raise the moral status is the development and upbuilding of that which in its highest embodiment, was denied him in the days of bondage—the home. We need homes, homes, homes, where intelligence and morality rule. And what was accomplished in this line in the nineteenth century? From owning comparatively few homes forty years ago, the Negro advanced before the close of the century to the position of occupying one million five hundred thousand farms and homes; and of owning two hundred and seventy-five thousand of these; many of them, as shown by views, forming a part of the exhibit at the Paris Exposition and elsewhere, compare favorably with the homes of any people.

As to the intelligence and morality that constitute the environment of the great mass of these homes owned by Negroes, the statistics of education and of crime show that Negro criminals do not, as a rule, come from the refined and educated classes, but from the most illiterate, the stupid, and the besotted element; from the class that has not been reached by the moral side of education, if at all. Says the compiler of the eleventh census: "Of juvenile criminals the smallest ratio is found among Negroes." This speaks well for the general atmosphere of the home life of our youth; while the bravery displayed by the colored man in every war of American independence has demonstrated his ability to risk life fearlessly "in defense of a country in which too many states permit his exclusion from the rights of citizenship." Such sacrifice presupposes a moral ideal of the highest type.

The position of the women of the race, always an index to the real progress of a people, in spite of slanderous attacks from unscrupulous members of her own and other races, is gradually improving, and was materially aided and abetted by the liberal ideas that especially obtained in the latter half of the century with reference to the development of women—irrespective of race or color—along the line of education, the professions, the industrial arts, etc.

As to the advancement of the Negro from a financial standpoint, it is possible that his achievements during the period in question might have been greater; yet both from within and without there have been many hindrances to overcome in the matter of accumulating wealth.

One of the greatest crimes of the slave system was that in practically denying to the slave the right to the product of his labor or any part thereof; it, to all intents and purposes destroyed his acquisitive faculty; thus he had small incentive to labor when free; and as the years went by, accumulated little in the shape of capital; showed little interest in profitable investment of his savings, if he were so fortunate as to have any. The great number of secret orders, and other schemes for the unwary, the main object of which apparently was to "bury the people" with great pomp and show, drained his pockets of most of the surplus change.

The Freedmen's Bureau sought to establish Negroes as peasant proprietors of the soil on the farms and plantations of the stricken South, and dreams of "forty acres and a mule" for a long time possessed the more ambitious only, in many instances, to meet a rude awakening; but notwithstanding the fact that the system of renting land, combined with the credit system of obtaining the necessities of life while waiting for the production and sale of the crop, is not conducive to the ownership of land on the part of the tenant; notwithstanding the very natural tendency on the part of the Negro to disassociate ideas of freedom and of tilling the soil, added to a desire to segregate in large cities in place of branching out to the sparsely settled districts of the great West and Northwest, there to take up rich farming lands and by a pioneer life to mend his fortunes in company with the peasants of other nations who are thus acquiring a firm foothold and a competence for their descendants; we repeat—in spite of the facts mentioned—before the close of the century the Negro had accumulated farms and homes valued in the neighborhood of seven hundred and fifty million dollars; personal property valued at one hundred and seventy millions; and had raised eleven millions for educational purposes. From these, and such other statistics as are available, relative to the achievements of the Negro in the United States during the nineteenth century, bearing in mind our first proposition—the measure of the success of a people is the depths from which it has come—we conclude that educationally, morally, financially, the Negro has accomplished by means of the opportunities at his command about all that could be expected of him or any other race under similar conditions.

That the Negro has made mistakes goes without saying. All races as well as all individuals have made them, but—"Let the dead past bury its dead."

The great problem confronting this and future generations is and will be, how to surpass or even equal our ancestors in bringing about results that make for the upbuilding of sterling character; how with our superior advantages to make the second forty years of freedom and the entire future life proportionally worthy of honorable mention.

"Build to-day, then strong and sure,
       With a firm and ample base,
And ascending and secure
       Shall to-morrow find its place.
Thus alone can we attain
       To those turrets, where the eye
Sees the world as one vast plain,
       And one boundless reach of sky."


This essay is reprinted from Twentieth Century Negro Literature, edited by D. W. Culp (Dr. Daniel Wallace Culp), published 1902.  The biographical sketch of Josephine Silone Yates is presumably written by Culp.  Related articles on this site include:

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