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More than a decade had passed since the end of the Civil War, but on a Friday evening in the early fall of 1876, a packed crowd at the Henry County Courthouse heard that the struggle for black people continued. . They heard it from one of the most powerful anti-slavery voices of the 19th century – Frederick Douglass.
The former slave who first arrived in Henry County in 1843 and was taken as a refuge by Seth Hinshaw of Greenboro was back, this time as a free man.
Remarks by Douglass at the courthouse
The New Castle Courier reported the event this way in its edition of September 29, 1876.
“Fred Douglass’ speech at the courthouse on Tuesday night was a landmark event in the Henry County campaign. Although the meeting was lightly advertised, the courthouse was densely populated, and the special attention shown there showed the respect shown to the distinguished speaker. The audience, too, was different from that of ordinary political meetings. The ancient anti-slavery pioneers had come out in force to hear the man whose words had been so powerful in creating anti-slavery sentiment in the north.
“This was Mr. Douglass’ second appearance at New Castle,” the article continued. “During the summer of 1843 he spoke at the old court-house in that place and those who heard the speech will remember that he told on that occasion the story of the brutal outrage which had upon him been committed at Pendleton a few days before by the Democrats of Madison county. The changes which have taken place in the nation since that time seem wonderful. Then slavery existed in half the Union. The Fugitive Slave Act figured in the statute books negroes were barred by law from entering the state of Indiana and John Tyler was in the presidential chair.When Mr. Douglass traveled through the North he was the subject of indignation and insults, when he would have been sent back to slavery if he had visited the South.
Different Circumstances, Similar Challenges
“On the occasion of Mr. Douglass’s second appearance at New Castle, he came as an emancipated citizen, but he is still the ardent defender of his race, whose wrongs, he believes, are today but somewhat less than in many sections of the South than those endured thirty years ago,” the article continues. “When Mr. Douglass appeared before the general public, he was greeted with hearty applause. now about seventy-five years old, and his abundant hair is almost white. He is still vigorous and eloquent, but has lost some of the fire of his youth; but in recounting the wrongs inflicted on his people by the Kuklux and the White Leaguers of the South , his old fire seemed to return.
While the newspaper article reported that there was passion in his voice, pessimism colored his tone and a renewed sense of urgency rose in his words.
“Mr. Douglass sees the future of the country as bleak, should the Democratic Party gain control of the government,” the Courier article said. “He is not alarmist; administration as desirable in ordinary times, but the utter disregard for the law in many Southern states, the Coushatta and Hamburg massacres, and the many thousands of murders of Negroes by Southern Democrats filled him with forebodings for the future of his race.Northerners could hardly comprehend the atrocity of the Southern democrats, and it was to the credit of their civilization that they could not.
The Coushatta Massacre in 1874, just two years before Douglass’ second appearance here, was an attack by members of a white supremacist organization made up of Southern white Democrats, Republican officials and freedmen at Coushatta, the parish seat of Red River Parish, Louisiana. They murdered six white Republicans and five to twenty freedmen witnesses.
The Hamburg Massacre (or Red Shirt Massacre or Hamburg Riot) was a riot in the city of Hamburg, South Carolina, in July 1876, leading up to the final election season of the Reconstruction era. It was the first in a series of civil unrest planned and carried out by white Democrats in the majority-black Republican district of Edgefield, with the goal of suppressing civil rights and voting rights for black Americans.
The Courier article says that Douglass used these two sad events as an example that while the Civil War was over, civil injustices were not.
“Mr. Douglass adjured the people of the North to save, for the good of the freedmen or of the South, the government from falling into the hands of men who, on account of slavery, had so little regard for the well- to be colored people of the nation. Matters of finance and tariffs were of minor importance to the existence of the nation and the rule of law. As the sleeping baby is safest in the arms of his mother, the freedom afforded to the nation by the republican party is surest when that party is in power. The address throughout was eloquent and philosophical, and showed a thorough knowledge of the animosity and aims of the slave power of the South.
The two political parties criticized
However, Douglass was as critical of Republicans as he was of Democrats in his speech here.
“The Republican Party had given them their freedom, but still owed them a debt,” the article continues. “It had emancipated them, but they were still homeless, without means of support and at the mercy of their offended masters. The Republican party had given the Negro his freedom and it was now the duty of the party to protect him. Democracy, through its policy of murdering harmless, long-suffering black men, was to bring a strong South to the Democratic party. But let them care. By their race, they bring against them a solid north… The negro, called to help the Union, had joined two hundred thousand men. The Democratic Party had once championed a hellish crime that auctioned off human flesh for gold and sold babies to build churches. Even the pulpit had been the defender of slavery, and the minister was paid out of the produce of human goods. The speaker concluded by saying that the peace of the country depended on the continued success of the Republican Party and that he believed it would succeed. The people of Indiana had a great duty to perform, and that was a vote for Harrison and Hayes.
Hayes won, but the black struggle continued
The 1876 election saw the highest voter turnout in US history (82%) and was decided by a single electoral vote.
Rutherford B. Hayes was the eventual winner, and true to Douglass’ wishes, Henry County backed him. Hayes got 65% of the vote here, beating Democrat Samuel Tilden 3,631 to 1,924.
But Douglass must have been disappointed with the Hayes administration.
An article on the University of Virginia website by Sheila Black said Hayes was unable to advance the cause of civil rights.
“While Hayes was a strong supporter of African American suffrage and the protection of their civil rights, he had little influence in the South,” Black wrote. “At the time he took office, the only federal troops still in the South to protect Republican governments were limited to small areas surrounding state houses in the capital cities of New Orleans and Columbia. Hayes insisted that Democrats in South Carolina and Louisiana are committed to defending the civil and voting rights of black and white Republicans. Once the Democrats agreed, Hayes withdrew the remaining federal troops from the South. And white southerners quickly turned their backs on their promises, systematically disenfranchising black voters through poll taxes, literacy tests and intimidation. Southern Democrats created a segregated society that used terror and violence to oppress African Americans.
“He (Hayes) complained bitterly in his diary, for example, of the fraud, intimidation and ‘violence of the most atrocious character’ which the white Southerners used to win the elections in 1878”, Black wrote. “And he used his presidential veto repeatedly to try to preserve an element of federal control over African American voting. But his efforts didn’t do much, and white supremacy dominated life in the southern states well into the second half of the 20th century.
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