1. Education

Mrs. M. E. C. Smith on African American Morality - 1902

From Jone Johnson Lewis,
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Essay by Mrs. M. E. C. Smith 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 Mrs. M. E. C. Smith is presumably written by Culp.  Related articles on this site include:


Is the Negro As Morally Depraved As He Is Reputed to Be?

BY Mrs. M. E. C. Smith.

Mrs. Mary E. C. Smith, daughter of Peter H. Day, was a native of New York city. Her education was provided for by her energetic widowed mother, to whom she ascribes the secret of her success. From early childhood she showed strong power of mind, and inherited from her mother that force and determination of purpose which prefigure success in whatever is undertaken. As a pupil, she was prompt and energetic, and never failed to win one of the Ridgeway prizes for good scholarship, which were given annually to successful contestants. She was an excellent Bible student, and when ten years old was elected a teacher in the Sunday-school. At this age she was impressed with the idea that it was her duty to go to the South to instruct her people, who were just emerging from bondage.

By a strange coincidence she was led to Florida, when she had finished her school course, the very place she had named when in an outburst of childish enthusiasm, while preparing a geography lesson, she had said: "O, mother, how I long to go there and teach my people!" The "land of flowers" has been the principal field of her labors as a teacher. Her ability as a teacher was soon discovered, and in 1890 she became principal of the Normal Department of the Edward Waters College, under the presidency of Prof. B. W. Arnett, Jr. Hundreds of students are better citizens because of her faithful teaching and Christian influence. As a church and Sunday-school worker she has few equals. The earnestness of purpose with which she performs the slightest duty is an example worthy of imitation.


This question is as grave as it is suggestive. There being a marked difference between character and reputation, its discussion naturally leads to a consideration of the Negro as he really is, and not as he is represented. The delineation of the Negro's true character is one of the most effectual means of refuting the columnious epithets so constantly hurled at him—a veritable blasphemy against his higher and better nature.

Has the Negro a higher and better nature? We shall see.

To separate him from the rest of the human family would be to dispute the great truth, that has been so long accepted, by all thoroughly Christianized nations—the Fatherhood of God, and the brotherhood of man. "Of one blood God formed all nations, for to dwell upon the face of the earth." Man, in his first estate, was supremely moral, being created in the righteous image of his Maker; had man continued in this condition, he would have been perfectly innocent and happy, favored with the exalted privilege of direct communion with God, inspired only by Him who is the Great Source, all light and perfection, from whom emanates nothing dark, unholy or unclean.

But man fell, and was driven from Eden. Hence, he began to wander away from God, in spirit and purpose; the tempter had been admitted and man's heart grew very deceitful and desperately wicked. The command of God, however, as written in Genesis, 1st chap., 28th verse, was inviolable. The earth must be peopled; thus man continued to wander, and his heart became proud and defiant, even to the resistance of the will and purpose or God. So far did the distance become between man and his Maker and so greatly abounded his wickedness, that at last God gave him over to his own evil imaginations.

The inhabitants of the antediluvian world, as a consequence of man's first transgression, fell lower and lower in the scale of good morals. They became so confirmed in wickedness, so totally depraved, that God destroyed them all, save one man and his family, whom He accounted as righteous, for the sake of his faithful obedience, and whose seed He preserved for the repeopling of the earth. The races, whether Semitic, Hamitic or Japhetic, as springing from the three sons of Noah, all partook of some of the natural proclivities of their revered and ancient grand-sire. What Canaan lacked in the line of perfection in the moral ethics of his day, may be directly attributed to heredity. The lineage of the Negro has been directly traced through Cush to Ham; hence, to argue the total moral depravity of the sons of Ham is but to concede the total moral depravity of the entire human race, as emanated from Noah in the postdiluvian age.

To assert that the Negro has no defects, and is morally good, would be to deny him as one of the legitimate heirs of the family of Noah, and deprive him of his natural inheritance. On the contrary, the Negro is joint-heir to all the virtues and all the infirmities of the other members of the human family. He is just as good and equally as bad as his fairer-complexioned brothers.

"Multiply and replenish the earth," was the eternal fiat. The subsequent confusion of tongues, and the dispersion of the people even to the remotest parts of the globe, were but links in the chain of God's design. The entire globe must be peopled, not a portion of it; hence the sons of man continued their migration until they were lost to each other.

The history of civilization discloses to us the land of the Hamites, as the cradle from whence sprang all learning, literature and arts, but man's heart still being deceitful, proud and wicked, continued to wander away from the true God; and, notwithstanding his acquired knowledge, and the very high state of civilization to which he had attained, he forgot God, and was allowed to drift into pagan darkness and superstition. These people were scattered, and their land despoiled, and they fled for refuge far into the wilderness where they were left in thick darkness:

"Grouping in ignorance, dark as the night," with
"No blessed Bible to give them the light."

Had any other division of the human family been subjected to the influences of the same depressing climate, for an equal length of time, as were the Hamites, and surrounded by the same degrading circumstances, having no light without the assistance of divine counsel, their degeneration would have been equally as great as these descendants of Ham, when first began their involuntary migration into this country. The subsequent training which the Negro received in the school of bondage, while, in some respects, may have been a very potent lever in raising them from the pit of darkness and superstition, was not that which would best serve in the development of his higher moral nature.

Prior to the beginning of colonial slave traffic, the Negro, as found in his original home, the dark continent, was innocent and simple in his habits, possessed of a very high regard for truth and virtue. And, though very ignorant and superstitious, the result of his paganistic worship, vice and immorality was to him almost unknown. He was a lover of the beautiful, and in disposition easily entreated; and, because of these very tractile elements in his character, he fell an easy prey to the machinations of his more wily and crafty brother Japhet.

A study of the American Negro since his most remarkable advent into this country, after being decoyed from his fatherland, portrays him as a mild, impressionable and submissive being—extremely imitative and very easily led or controlled. Those who speculated upon him, as human chattel, very often took advantage of his traits of character in order to further their own interests, and perpetuate the abominable institution of slavery.

The Negro was so tractile in disposition and so easily trained for good or bad that he was frequently developed in the practice of deceit, hypocrisy, tattling and numerous other weaknesses, as the result of the course of training which he received from those who were directly responsible for his physical and moral well being. That peculiar nature of his education in the school of bondage, which taught him that his owner's will was supreme, divested him of his very high regard for virtue; and, wherever resistance was presumed, coercion soon forced him to yield, and he instinctively bowed to the inevitable. Thus, the females drifted into the belief that their bodies were the absolute property of their owners, and that they had no sacred personal rights which he, their self-imposed master, was bound to respect. But, like begets like. What wonder, then, that the seed of unrighteousness, which was implanted in the modern American Negro, before his birth, should spring up and bring forth abundantly of the same kind? Whatever is immoral about the American Negro of to-day was bequeathed to him by his unrighteous ancestors of fairer hue.

A closer inspection of the Negro's home life reveals him as an upright, religious character, and, even under the most adverse circumstances of his unholy environments, he was in many instances so tenacious of his preconceived standard of good morals that he defended his principles even to the extent of yielding his life.

The Negro's native integrity and fidelity were so thoroughly relied upon that during the Civil War, which arrayed in fratricidal strife the two sections of our beloved country, the heroes of the South left their homes and went forth to battle, feeling perfectly secure in entrusting their wives, their daughters, and, in many instances, their fortunes, in the hands of their faithful Negro servants, who remained true to their trusts, caring for, and defending, their precious charges, even at the risk of their own lives. To their credit, it may be inscribed that, although they were aware that victory for the South and the return of their masters meant the prolongation, if not the perpetuation, of their unjust bondage, they swerved not from their posts of duty, and took no advantage of the situation, thus proving the high standard of their moral character.

In the darkest days of thralldom the dominant powers relied upon the Negro's higher moral sense; to the nurse was entrusted almost the entire care of their offspring, and numerous other duties of great responsibility were frequently imposed upon their male and female Negro servants, who invariably proved their high sense of honor, based upon their highest conception of good morals.

Notwithstanding the efforts made to keep the Negro ignorant and degraded, ever and anon, the scintillations from his superior nature would flash out like a burning meteor and exhibit him as he was designed by God his Father, who is no respector of persons. In this connection, we cannot help referring to the beautiful character of Phyllis Wheatley, whose life was absolutely pure, and who was so remarkably inspired by the poetic muse that, even in the darkest days of Negro bondage, she forced the recognition of mankind. Her genius flashed forth as a beacon light to her benighted brethren as a token of assurance to them of the fulfillment of the promise, "Ethiopia shall again stretch forth her hand unto God." Benjamin Banneker, the great mathematician and astronomer, was another instance, in those remote days of darkness, that the Great Dispenser of all light, and truth, imparted His gifts alike to all; and there were others, but for our purpose, these names must forever stand as exponents of that higher and better life that was pent up within the Negro's breast, as a dimly-lighted torch, enshrouded under the mantle of slavery, which needed only the removal of the garment to be clearly seen; and thus, surrounded by the igniting influences of the atmosphere of liberty, would burst forth into all the effulgency of a brilliant light.

As a rule, the modern Negro of America, since his liberation from the shackles of his unjust bondage, has put forth strenuous efforts to uplift himself. And he has succeeded beyond his own most sanguine expectations; having had so many obstacles to overcome, he should not be measured by the heights he has attained, but by the depths from which he came. Out of the depths cried the Negro unto God; and He heard him! A few have arisen far above the masses, and are by their noble examples beckoning the others to come on. The general response is, "We are coming," up out of the cesspool of darkness, ignorance and immorality to the higher plane of virtue, knowledge, purity, and true righteousness which exalteth nations.

That there are dark sides to the picture of the Negro's career since his emergency from that dreary school of bondage, must be admitted, but many of his defects are directly traceable to his imitative propensity. To his own sorrow, he imitates the bad, as well as the good.

Like the Indian, the fire-water which he has learned to imbibe has divested him of his manhood, and robbed him of his virtue, and it is a sad truth that he is encouraged in this personal debasement of himself by his brother in white, who is still, in many instances, taking advantages of his weak traits, offering him every inducement to continue in his course of self-degradation.

Thirty-six years of light and privilege have wrought wonders for the Negro, but these are scarcely a day, when compared with the long night of over two hundred years of bondage; it is impossible for him in this short period to have totally eradicated the evils for which he was not wholly responsible, but which were entailed upon him at his birth.

Those deflections in the Negro's practice of his code of good morals, which are so often exhibited as an argument against the entire race, are but the results of the development of his weaknesses, by the methods of former years, which he now, finds it so hard to overcome. But those who transgress the general rule of uplifting are the exceptions. To God be the glory for the present Negro, measured, not by the few, who have overlooked their most sacred rights and privileges, but by the many who are daily demonstrating, by honest toil and labor, that they have the highest regard for all that is pure, ennobling, and virtuous.

The Negro's inspiration for poetry, music and the fine arts, proves conclusively that there dwells within him a higher and better nature, which needs only to be developed to its fullest capacity to convince the world beyond the possibility of a successful contradiction that his standard of good morals is as elevated as that of mankind in general. As it is impossible for any fountain to pour forth pure and impure water at the same time, so is it impossible for total depravity to exist in the same mind where dwells that finer sense or appreciation of the beautiful, which originates music, poetry and the fine arts. Again, we refer the world to such beautiful examples as our own dear Edmonia Lewis, B. T. Tanner, now abroad; Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Frances W. Harper, Madam Salika, Flora Batsen Bergen, Nellie Brown Mitchell, Virginia Adele Montgomery, Hallie Quinn Brown, and scores of others; some, perhaps not quite so famous as those mentioned, but who along the line of the higher inspiration of the Negro, refute any argument that may be opposed. As an ensign of the very high standard of Christian ethics attainable by the race, we mention with heart-felt gratitude our dear Amanda Smith, the leader among hundreds of other noble Christian women, who have given not only their lives to God and their race, but feel themselves responsible for the general uplifting of mankind wherever found, knowing that there is no difference with Him, for whom they labor, "whether Greek or Jew." There is no difference, whether high or low, rich or poor, bond or free, white or black; all have a part in the common salvation of Him who came to lift the world up to its original standard of morality by sacrificing His own pure life, and who said, "And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me." The essential need of the human family is charity. Our Saviour said of the Christian graces, "And now abideth these three, Faith, Hope and Charity, but the greatest of these is Charity." The time was when there was very little, if any, faith in the Negro's ability to rise and equip himself as a man; afterwards there came a faint glimmer of hope, which commingled with the slowly but gradually increasing faith, proved a blessed and powerful agent in the line of effectual assistance. The Negro began to rise, and he has, with the omnipotent aid of God, his Father, continued his rising until the present, with wonderfully good results, as must be conceded by all minds unbiased by prejudice.

Still there is much land to be possessed, and one thing is yet lacking in the attitude of those who scrutinize him daily for the purpose of rendering an unfavorable judgment. "Charity suffereth long and is kind." Suffer in this connection means to bear; those who claim to have attained a higher standard of morality should bear patiently the infirmities of the Negro, while he is rising, knowing full well that his inherent weaknesses are not of his own begetting, and that it will require some time to overcome the inertia of wrong instruction and practice. But "thanks be unto God, who giveth the victory," to all who obey Him, the Negro as well, God requires simply the earnest effort on his part, and then accomplishes the work Himself.

The highest type of morality is that which generates a disposition on the part of its possessor to have compassion for the lowly and extend a helping hand toward the elevation, comfort and restoration of their inferiors. It has been wisely asserted that "an idle brain is the devil's work-shop." In view of this truism it is wisdom to keep the hand and brain well employed. Booker T. Washington comprehended this fully when he commenced the great work which he is now so successfully prosecuting at Tuskegee. Like the sainted bishop, Daniel A. Payne's, Booker T. Washington's standard of true morality was far above the average of his race. The range of his vision being so extensive, he saw clearly the situation of his people, and without hesitation undertook, in his own way, the work of ameliorating the condition of the masses with the hope of uplifting them to a higher plane of truth and virtue. His motives being pure, his success has been thus far commensurate with the scope of his prodigious undertaking. Notwithstanding his being misunderstood and misinterpreted by many, he has, with unswerving purpose, pursued the trend of his own honest convictions, proved his fidelity to the race, and convinced the world of his unshaken faith in the ultimate success of his enterprise. He is still practically demonstrating his obedience to the Moral Law, as summed up in the Divine command, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Many noble women, also of the race, having outrun their less-favored sisters and reached the highest standard, are now extending their hands to assist others in making their ascent into the more etherial atmosphere of that highest sense of good morals. Thousands, with organization as their watchword, have banded themselves into associations and federations under the significant motto, "Lifting as we climb." The Negro race, under the combined influence of its army of noble workers, both male and female, is fast journeying the upward way of truth and virtue; new heights it is gaining every day.

The little leaven of purity will be unceasingly applied until the whole lump of Negro humanity is raised upon the lofty plane which will force the recognition of his antagonistic brother and convince him that the same high sense of morality governs the Negro as does the Caucasian, or any other highly civilized race upon the globe.

God grant that the refining fires of truth may burn until all the dross of prejudice shall be melted and consumed, when,

"Man to man united,
          The whole world shall be lighted,
As Eden was of old."


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

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