Prospects of the Freedmen of Hilton Head Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Celebrated by many as the father of black nationalism, Martin Robison Delany is among the leading black thinkers and leaders of the nineteenth century. Like his colleague Frederick Douglass, Delany achieved great things as he led the fight against slavery and created new opportunities for freedmen, including serving as the first black major in the Union army, writing scores of influential articles and books, gaining acceptance to Harvard Medical School, participating in conventions, meeting President Lincoln, and traveling to Africa. Yet Delany’s celebration of black identity and his support of freedmen’s emigration to Africa distinguish him clearly from leaders such as Douglass. At times, Delany dedicated his efforts to integration in the United States, but his personal experiences and frustrations with the persistence of racism led him, at other times, to call for separatism. Criticized by leaders during his time, Delany’s prophetic vision as expressed in articles such as “Prospects of the Freedmen of Hilton Head” nonetheless planted the seeds for the Black Power movement that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century.

Summary Overview

Celebrated by many as the father of black nationalism, Martin Robison Delany is among the leading black thinkers and leaders of the nineteenth century. Like his colleague Frederick Douglass, Delany achieved great things as he led the fight against slavery and created new opportunities for freedmen, including serving as the first black major in the Union army, writing scores of influential articles and books, gaining acceptance to Harvard Medical School, participating in conventions, meeting President Lincoln, and traveling to Africa. Yet Delany’s celebration of black identity and his support of freedmen’s emigration to Africa distinguish him clearly from leaders such as Douglass. At times, Delany dedicated his efforts to integration in the United States, but his personal experiences and frustrations with the persistence of racism led him, at other times, to call for separatism. Criticized by leaders during his time, Delany’s prophetic vision as expressed in articles such as “Prospects of the Freedmen of Hilton Head” nonetheless planted the seeds for the Black Power movement that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century.

Defining Moment

The year 1865 marked the end of the U.S. Civil War and promised great hope but also great uncertainty. General Robert E. Lee’s capitulation to Union commander Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, was the first major surrender and clearly signaled the war’s impending conclusion. The war’s end, however, did not immediately resolve the issue of slavery, in part because Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 had declared freedom only for slaves in the Confederacy. This exempted the slave-holding border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri and the Union-controlled state of Tennessee as well as some other areas controlled by federal troops in parts of Louisiana and Virginia. It was only in December, 1865 that Congress formally abolished slavery by passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. These events ushered in the period known as Reconstruction, which in part aimed to define the legal status and rights of freed slaves and to manage the former Confederate states’ transition to self-government and the status of their leaders. During Reconstruction, Congress passed numerous acts and constitutional amendments addressing these issues and created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau) to establish the necessary institutions and resources for these transitions.

Martin Delany was the first black major in the Union army and later worked as an officer for the Freedmen’s Bureau, but he knew that establishing political and economic opportunity for freed slaves required not only new laws and agencies but also a profound shift in culture. Southern planters would have to respect freed slaves as equal citizens with the right to contract fair labor, and building this respect would entail uprooting society’s deep-seated ideology of white supremacy. Confronting the difficulty of changing this poisonous belief system, Delany wrote the seven articles of “Prospects of the Freedmen of Hilton Head” while he was working for the Freedmen’s Bureau in Hilton Head, South Carolina in late 1865, just before the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Addressing both the cultural and practical challenges that lay ahead, the articles brilliantly reflect the high hopes and deep uncertainty of this moment in U.S. history in which legal and institutional ground shifted fundamentally in the context of profound cultural aspirations and resistance.

Author Biography

In his long and restless life of 73 years, Martin Robison Delany worked tirelessly for the cause of freedom and achieved countless distinctions. Born in 1812 in Charles Town, Virginia, to a free mother and an enslaved father, Delany moved to Pennsylvania in the 1820s with his mother when she fled authorities who tried to imprison her for educating her children. Delany studied with abolitionist leaders in Pittsburgh during the 1830s and began his distinguished career. Over the next two decades, he established his own medical practice, attended conventions, and became a prolific writer. His achievements during this time include editorial work with Frederick Douglass on the North Star, a highly influential African American newspaper, and his brief attendance at Harvard Medical School, which was cruelly cut short after white students protested his and other black students’ presence.

Partly in response to his rejection at Harvard and to the Compromise of 1850, which strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act, Delany then wrote The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, which promoted black emigration to Central and South America. In subsequent years, Delany backed up his words by organizing a convention for emigration, and he himself moved to Canada in 1856, where he consulted with abolitionist John Brown on a possible slave insurrection. In the late 1850s, he began to promote black emigration to Africa and even visited the Niger Valley, signed a treaty to establish a settlement in West Africa, and went on a speaking tour in England to raise funds for the effort. In 1859-1861, Delany published a novel and an account of his experiences in Africa, but he abandoned the emigration project after the king with whom he had signed the treaty reneged.

During the Civil War, Delany redirected his attention to the United States. He recruited black troops for the Union forces, became the army’s first black major, and gained notoriety for meeting President Lincoln. He subsequently worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina during Reconstruction, continued to write, and even ran for lieutenant governor of the state. Yet, as the failures of Reconstruction became increasingly clear in the 1870s, a disillusioned Delany once again began to promote emigration to Africa, and his late writings underscore a “Pan-African pride in blacks’ historical, cultural, and racial ties to Africa” (Levine 2). This emphasis chiefly contributes to his place in history as the father of Black nationalism.

Document Analysis

In August of 1865, Delany traveled to Hilton Head, South Carolina after a sudden change of plans. In May of that year, he had been ordered to begin recruiting men to serve in the 105th regiment of the United States Colored Troops, but the military withdrew the order in June when the war ended. On August 7, 1865, Major Delany was commanded to report to the Freedmen’s Bureau in Hilton Head for a three-year period of service. There, Delany served as an assistant commissioner and worked to organize and educate freedmen about their new rights and responsibilities and to help them obtain fair labor contracts. Delany’s articles submitted to the newspaper The New South (five of the seven remain in print) were part of his strategy to defend the freedmen and African Americans in general against certain criticisms and to promote his ideas for how to establish new labor structures in the South (Levine 396). The articles, however, reflect deep ambiguity about the nature of African Americans and their chances for progress. With impressive boldness, Delany asserts the notion of universal human nature and yet African American superiority, and his plan for the political and economic success of freed slaves expresses both belief in the possibility of integration and cynicism about whites’ motivations. To be sure, Delany’s life experiences inform the articles’ contradictions, but it would be a mistake to dismiss these tensions as an intellectual flaw or the product of the writer’s personal idiosyncrasies. Instead, we can best understand these inconsistencies as a vivid reflection of the deep ambivalence in the legal and cultural history of the nineteenth-century.

In the first article, Delany implies that he is responding to the charge that former slaves are not ready for freedom and have not demonstrated adequate self-sufficiency. He immediately acknowledges that freedmen are not yet self-sustaining but also points out their industriousness and desire to work. Then, he writes, “But industry alone is not sufficient, nor work available, except these command adequate compensation” (Rollin 230). With this, he announces his two primary concerns in the series: the worth of African Americans and the structures needed to organize fair labor. The first two articles address the nature and talents of his race in astonishing terms of “political economy,” in which Delany argues that the Africans brought to America were in fact chosen because they were the only group capable of the backbreaking work in the New World. He begins with the date of 1492, describing America as a vast wilderness populated by Native Americans, who had not cultivated the land and thus could not survive the hard labor required when they “were put to labor by the foreigners” (Rollin 231). Here, Delany claims that two-and-a-half million Native Americans died “from this cause alone” (Rollin 231), i.e., inability to survive the working conditions imposed by the colonists. He then claims that white settlers suffered the same fate and cites the colonist John Smith as an example. The solution for the European colonists was to import African slaves, whose unique capabilities convinced Queen Elizabeth to invest in the slave trade. Delany goes on to argue that the African slave trade flourished and eventually provoked a Civil War because the Africans themselves had rare abilities unmatched by either whites or Native Americans. In this way, he transforms slavery from an issue of the weak oppressed by the strong to one of demand for rare talent, which effectively subverts racist notions of African inferiority and establishes the high value of the freedmen’s labor. Nonetheless, this celebration of African identity reinforces the notion of racial separateness and partly accounts for Delany’s legacy as a Black Nationalist.

In the sixth article, Delany addresses the question of industriousness against a more specific charge, but here he appeals to an egalitarian notion of “human nature.” The issue is that many freed people refuse to work in the fields as they had done as slaves, prompting charges of laziness and unsuitability for freedom. Yet Delany describes the change as a natural consequence of freedom. If a family is no longer forced to work in the fields, then it is only natural that a mother might choose to stay home to run her household and to send her children to school, which accounts for the reduction in field labor. Delany thus defends the worth of blacks by declaring, “The immutable, unalterable laws which governed or controlled the instincts or impulses of a Hannibal, Alexander, or Napoleon, are the same implanted in the brain and breast of page or footman, be he black or white, circumstances alone making the difference in development according to the individual propensity” (Rollin 237). Here, people of African descent are characterized no longer as exceptional but as acting according to universal human nature–a nature that makes no distinction between the most prestigious leaders and the least-respected laborers.

An analogous contradiction emerges when Delany turns to the actual prospects of the freedmen in the seventh article. This time, the tension lies between hope for an integrated society and Delany’s cynicism toward those who control the labor economy. The cynicism is immediately apparent when he chooses to frame his argument in terms of political economy because, he states, “however Christian and philanthropic we may be” (Rollin 238), no one will want to support the elevation of blacks unless they can offer “a prospective enhancement of the general wealth of the country” (Rollin 238). With this, Delany flatly rejects the idea that anyone will support freedmen as deserving human rights per se; wealth is the only true motivation for supporting the newly free people.

At the same time, however, Delany proposes a plan that implies strong hope and even belief in the possibility of an integrated labor economy that respects the ideal of the common good. Delany first points out the availability of land, as two-thirds of land in the South remains uncultivated. He then claims that only 312,000 people have been landowners in the South and, citing Pennsylvania as a positive example, argues that a greater number of owners would increase the wealth of the community overall. His specific proposal is that both the government and large landowners should either lease or sell to freedmen its lands in portions of 20 to 40 acres. These freedmen would then create great demand for farming supplies and other goods, thereby stimulating the economy. Delany declares his faith in such a plan by rejecting those sources (such as the London Times) that deny the practical feasibility of freedom. And yet, he also considers the possibility of failure when he states at the conclusion that if the government and plantation owners in the United States refuse to employ free blacks, educated freemen of the North would be willing to negotiate “with foreign states on this continent, which would only be too ready to receive them and theirs” (Rollin 241). Here, Delany refers to the possibility of emigrating within the North American continent, suggesting his doubts about the success of his own plan.

Delany’s fascinating contradictions reflect larger tensions in the legal and cultural history of the nineteenth century. The legal and constitutional approach to slavery was long dedicated to preserving the union rather than to addressing slavery exclusively as a moral issue. For example, the Mexican-American War (1846-48) resulted in vast new territories for the United States, provoking the key issue of whether the new lands would allow slavery. After significant conflict and debate, Congress passed the Compromise of 1850, which was a series of bills intended to placate parties on both sides of the debate in order to preserve the union and maintain peace, not to address the issue of slavery as a moral or human rights issue. Accordingly, the Compromise pleased abolitionists by admitting California as a free state and by banning the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and it placated pro-slavery people by protecting the practice of slavery in the District of Columbia and by offering a harsher Fugitive Slave Act. This Act required runaway slaves to be returned to their owners and imposed heavy fines on negligent law-enforcement officials and both fines and imprisonment on those who aided runaway slaves. It also denied both slaves and free blacks trials and testimony, so that many free blacks became enslaved based on nothing more than a white person’s affidavit. For these reasons, The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 outraged abolitionists.

Likewise, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was directed toward the cause of freedom, not least because it began to formalize what appeared to be the inevitable end of slavery, but it also strategically tolerated slavery for the sake of preserving the Union. The proclamation granted freedom to more than 3 million slaves in the Confederate states but denied it to hundreds of thousands of slaves in the border states, in Union-occupied Tennessee, and in other parts of federally controlled slave states. Lincoln’s rationale for this partial gesture was that he needed the border slave states to remain in the Union so that he could garner as much support for the North as possible and weaken “the Confederacy by holding out to irresolute Southerners the possibility that they could return to the Union with their property, including slaves, intact” (Foner 4). This does not mean that Lincoln did not want to abolish slavery; the proclamation was an important part of Lincoln’s progressive evolution on the slavery issue and in part ensured that abolition would indeed occur. Rather, the proclamation’s partial liberation reveals politics, rather than justice, as Lincoln’s chief priority.

These political and legal compromises did in fact lead to justice, with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and subsequent constitutional amendments and laws that were part of Reconstruction, which lasted until 1877. In the early years of Reconstruction, progressive citizens and politicians achieved a great deal, establishing voting rights and citizenship for freed slaves, setting up integrated governments in the South, and establishing educational and other institutions for the new black citizens. Most scholars agree, however, that Reconstruction ultimately failed for many different reasons, including the devastating economic fallout from the war on the Southern economy and the international economic depression that began in 1873. Yet perhaps the most important cause of failure was the racist belief system that persisted despite the South’s defeat and the new federal laws and institutions that supported the former slaves’ freedom. By the early 1870s, conservatives replaced progressive governments throughout the South, and many conservatives staunchly opposed Reconstruction and tolerated or even encouraged widespread violence against African Americans. As reactionary conservatives took control of the South and the North began to lose interest in Reconstruction, the stage was set for the Jim Crow era, which established African Americans as an underclass in the United States for the next century.

Martin Delany lived to see the failure of Reconstruction, but he wrote “Prospects of the Freedmen” earlier, in 1865. Nonetheless, Delany clearly understood the distance between politics and justice and between the law and culture. He had witnessed this gap in the legal compromises prior to and during the war. He also experienced it in his own life from his earliest days: his family’s move from Charles Town to Pennsylvania occurred after his mother, who was free, was persecuted for teaching her children to read and write; later, Delany was admitted to Harvard Medical School, but its racist culture defeated his right to attend. These realities of white resistance to the law deeply inform Delany’s writings and help us to understand his desire to exalt African Americans while arguing for equal opportunity as well as his impulse to imagine economic structures that would facilitate success for freedmen even as he harbored doubts and cynicism about the motives of whites. His shrewd observation and experience taught him that culture had the power to defeat the law. Sadly, the failure of Reconstruction would justify the lesson. Yet, in 1865, he valiantly resolved to redefine prevailing beliefs and to frame them as part of an economic plan that he hoped and believed could succeed.

Essential Themes

In an attempt to lend objectivity to his arguments, Delany organizes both his characterization of African Americans and his practical proposals under the theme of political economy. Against the popular notion of the former slaves’ childlike nature, laziness, and inability to be self-sufficient, Delany shockingly declares the African slave trade as a unique success in the face of previous failures based on the cultural (and implicitly racial) inferiority of whites and Native Americans. He uses this stance to elevate people of African descent based on the economic success that only they could provide to the New World settlers. He then uses this strategy to bolster his plan to promote the economic opportunity and welfare of freedmen: it is in the United States’ interest to support this uniquely talented group that ensured the country’s prosperity. Yet in arguing for equal opportunity, Delany can only take this claim so far, as demonstrated when he falls back on the notion of universal human nature to explain the reduced pool of field labor. Likewise, Delany proposes a plan that assumes the cooperation and integration of government, private landholders, and freedmen but that also reveals cynicism and doubts about the plan’s likelihood. These themes of separatism versus unity and hope versus cynicism mirror the deeper patterns of ambivalence and compromise that were so prevalent in the laws and culture of nineteenth-century slavery and its subsequent abolition.

Bibliography
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.
  • Levine, Robert S. Martin R. Delany: A Documentary Reader. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2003. Print.
  • Rollin, Frank A. Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany. New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Adeleke, Tunde. Without Regard to Race: the Other Martin Robison Delany. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003. Print.
  • Foner, Philip S. and Robert James Branham, eds. Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1998. Print.
  • Levine, Robert S. Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass and the Politics of Representative Identity. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1997. Print.
  • Sterling, Dorothy. The Making of an Afro-American: Martin Robison Delany 1812-1885. Garden City: Doubleday, 1971. Print.
  • Ullman, Victor. Martin R. Delany: The Beginnings of Black Nationalism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971. Print.
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