Title: Letters From "Ethiop" Number II

Source text: Ethiop [Wilson, William J.], "Letters From "Ethiop" Number II," The Anglo-African 5 September 1863: [2].

Date: September 5, 1863

Keywords:African Americans--ColonizationAfrican Americans--Washington (D.C.)SlaveholdersSmith, James McCune, 1813-1865United States, Department of the TreasuryUnited States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Economic aspectsUnited States, Patent OfficeUnited States Capitol (Washington, D.C.)

Civil War Washington ID: cww.02507

TEI/XML: cww.02507.xml

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Dear Doctor:

Your first look out upon the
streets of Washington impresses you with the
feeling of never returning to the North, except
to settle your affairs. It is to me no marvel
now that colored men of the South have no
disposition to remain North, and are ready to
return as soon as the foul institution of slavery
is swept away. In the North, boast as we
may, the whites have everything all their own
way; in the South, complain as we will, the
blacks have everything all their own way.
This may seem strange, yet, nevertheless, it is
true. Here in the South, it is blacks, blacks,
blacks everywhere. Blacks on the government
wagons—blacks on the drays—blacks on the
hacks—blacks on the dirt-carts—blacks in the
hotels, in the barbers shops, in all the houses,
on all the streets. In the North we placed a
high estimate upon the few crumbs thrown to
us (for the service we rendered the Republican
party to elect honest Abraham Lincoln), in the
way of appointing a few colored men to places
in the Custom House; but what think you of
finding responsible colored men, by scores, em-
​ here, in the Capitol, in the Treasury, in
the State Department; in fine, in all the Depart-
​ of government; an acknowledgment of
capacity, but more, an evidence of political
recognition. With us in the North the employ-
​ of colored persons is the exception; here
it is the rule. With the North the presence of
the black man is (or was prior to the infamous
riots) rather a chilling something—unde-
​—an objectionable shadow; here it is
an indispensable necessity, felt and acknow-
​ by all. You cannot go a single square
without encountering at least fifteen or twenty
colored persons any moment in the day.

You walk about here as the whites do at
the North, feeling the place to be wholly your
own, surrounded by your own people, well-posi-
​, and none to disturb the order of things.
One feels not that cold indifference, too often
manifested by some of us in the North, towards
each other, but rather, to cheerfully mingle with
his people as a matter of choice and of love. I am
no advocate of colonization, and do not justify
this feeling, but it steals upon you unawares,
that the whites ought, and must, some day step
aside and leave this sunny land to these sunny
children whose unrequited toil has made it what
we now find it.

The advantage they possess here is that
they have been taught to labor, know its worth
and profit by it. The whites, on the contrary,
under the slave system, are a helpless class;
and since they can no longer appropriate the
earnings of others for their own support, must
yield to the superior class—these bronzed

To afford you an idea of the new process
going on here, let me give you a single illus-
​. A Virginian family, just across the
Potomac, one of the first in standing and in
wealth—one of the F. F. V.'s—owning a large
number of slaves; by the misfortunes of re-
​ became sadly reduced. From extreme
wealth they had arrived at extreme poverty.
It was brought about in this wise: Their
wealth consisted, I am informed, chiefly in
able-bodied men and women, who, when the
Yankees came to carry them off to a more
cruel bondage, as they were told, walked off
themselves to see if it were really so, and have
not returned. Now what could these scions
of Virginia's first family do?

The old mansion and the old plantation were
there it is true, but the substance was gone—
the shadow only remained. What could they
do? What did they do? I will tell you. It
was a bright idea of theirs, and worthy of
general imitation by all of the F. F. V.'s whom
fate has similarly treated. This noble family,
to its credit be it said, instead of going to the
dogs, saved themselves by (do not laugh)
opening, what is familiarly called by white
trash, a nigger boarding house. I choose to
call it by what is more correct, a contraband
boarding house, or, better still, a hotel for
colored ladies and gentlemen who have recently
been emancipated.

Yes, sir; there, I am told, may be seen old
mistress and all the household any day tugging
away at what is needful for the accommodation
of her sable guests. Imagine, my dear sir,
"Bet," and "Sue," and "Phillis," and "Pomp,"
and "Sam," and "Cuff," striding those ancient
halls, arm in arm, or reclining at shade of
evening beneath the columns of that lofty
porch, or beneath the shadows of those
ancestral trees; or worse, seated in the fes-
​ hall in the fine old oaken chairs of those
ancestors themselves, smacking their lips over
the viands produced, with the fair descendants
standing behind them to attend to their various
commands; imagine this if you can and not
shed a tear—be it ever so silent, a single tear.
Wonderful how "God moves in a mysterious
way, His wonders to perform."

He who works here wins. Mark that. In
the North the white man may be the laborer—
here, speculate as theorists may, the fact is
indisputable that the black man must ever be
the worker, and the worker here must eventually
become the possessor of the soil. His physical
character, complete adaptation to the climate
and numerical strength must ensure this to
him. White labor here is disgraceful. It will
be long, if ever, before it is otherwise. It will
come to honor too late in any case, however, if
the black man makes proper use of his present
advantage, for it to enable the white man to
catch up in the great industrial progress just
opening up in this section of our country.

I defy any black man to walk about here a
single day and not feel, if he ever had any mis-
​, that after all America is his home, a
portion of these States his lawful inheritance,
one day to be guaranteed to him.

African colonization schemes; Haytian
schemes for bettering our condition; and
Honduras schemes, for our emigration, and
even Canada schemes, all vanish from before
the newer and better one, "the new Southern
life." The individual colored man may rise as
he pleases, I speak for the great masses.

Washington is the Capital of these United
States, and hence quite renowned; and yet
(forgive me for the comparison), it seems to
me something like the Irishman's flea. "Och!
Pat says to Jemmie, on seeing a flea for the
first time in America (he had just come over),
and attempting to put his finger on it (Irish
fleas move slower), "Och, shure, and what
kind of a crathur is that? You put your finger
on him and he is not there!" So of Washington.
It is there, it is not there. Private Washing-
​, that which belongs to the individual man,
has little to boast; so little, that to the eye it
is not there. Public Washington, Uncle Sam's
part, is really splendid; so much so, that it is
truly there to the eye and in fact. True,
private Washington has her Brown's Hotel, her
Metropolitan, her Willard's and her National,
and what is more, her Pennsylvania avenue;
and a lively, bustling, busy, little street it is,
too, running its serpentine length from the
Capitol to the Treasury, a distance, I should
say, of quite a mile; but then one misses, in
all this, the piles of white marble, and aristo-
​ brown stone, massive granite, and the
cloud-wise [eaves?], and noon-day shadows of
your Dey street, and Courtlandt and Barclay
streets, and your Murray and Warren and
Chambers streets, etc. etc., to make no mention
of your incomparable Broadway. "Your
Broadway," laughingly said a gentleman here
to me, "must be so named for fun." "They
did not know any better," said another. "Now
if it had the width of our Pennsylvania avenue,"
responded a third.

All this amused me vastly, though I sought to
conceal it from my new friends, whose feelings
I would not willingly injure, for there are no
finer fellows to be met with any where. I felt
fully the force of what they wished to impress
upon me, for Pennsylvania avenue is broad
indeed; broader than the Phylacterees of the
old Scribes and Pharisees, so broad that stand-
​ in your own shop door you could not well
recognize the glum countenance of your oppo-
​ neighbor. Most of the lesser streets seem
to be run, or to have run themselves without
much restraint or guidance, into this chief pet
street of Washington, diagonalwise, a kind of
acknowledgment of its greatness; and though
your head is clearer than mine, I scarcely think
you would deem it safe at your first landing
here, to venture far from the chief artery avenue
of Washington without a guide.

The public buildings are scattered around
over the town somewhat as the farmer sows
his seed over his entire field. They have not
been permitted to come up all, in any one nook
or corner, but equal distribution of Uncle Sam's
golden seeds seems to have been the theme.
The Capitol is in this corner, and the Treasury
in that, the Post Office is here and Patent Office
there, and so on to the end. I ventured to re-
​ that, "when this cruel war is over," the
nation might deem it best to remove the seat
of government to some other location. "Never,"
said a gentleman present, with much vehemence;
"the nation has spent too many millions here
to do that." I could not at first understand
this assertion, and confessed[.?] I hoped there
was not any selfishness connected with it; but
when I was brought into closer proximity with
these gorgeous buildings of Uncle Sam's, and
further permitted to penetrate their interior, I
could well understand how the lavish expendi-
​ of the nation's wealth will be a great
bar to the removal of its Capitol. More anon.

Yours truly,

To James McCune Smith, M.D.