The Great Emancipator’s original solution for America’s race problem.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 92: When President Abraham Lincoln met with free black leaders in 1862, what did he propose?
Today marks the anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s “shot heard ’round the world.” I’m referring, of course, to the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation he fired off from the White House on Sept. 22, 1862, five days after the real bullets had been fired 70 miles outside of Washington, D.C., at the Battle of Antietam (then and now the bloodiest day in American history, with close to 23,000 casualties).
What little Union victory there was in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s withdrawal from Maryland gave Lincoln the opening he needed to issue the Confederacy his ultimatum: If it remained in a state of rebellion come Jan. 1, 1863, he would sign an executive order rendering “all” of its “slaves … then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
For any student of American history, this is well-trod ground. But here’s what you may not know about those crowded days of late summer 1862. While weighing emancipation, Lincoln also had a very different kind of ultimatum on his mind—for African Americans.
For much of his first years in office, Lincoln was obsessed with solving America’s seemingly intractable race problem by persuading free blacks to lead the way for an exodus that would wash the United States of the original sin of slavery—without having to live alongside those it had enslaved.
To help sell his plan, the president had a meeting convened with local black leaders in Washington. It was billed to them as a policy conversation, but Lincoln wasn’t really eager to listen. He wanted to deliver a message about a mission, and they had been chosen to receive it.
The African-American Delegation
Historian Kate Masur helps recount the strange-but-true tale in her essay “The African American Delegation to Abraham Lincoln: A Reappraisal,” in the June 2010 issue of Civil War History. The chairman of the free-black delegation was Edward M. Thomas, messenger to the House of Representatives and a respected cultural leader in Washington's black community. He was known, Masur writes, “for his collections of fine arts, coins, and a personal library of almost six hundred volumes.”
Joining Thomas in the delegation:
- John F. Cook Jr., a local school leader who had studied at Oberlin College.
- John T. Costin, who, like Thomas and Cook, was a Freemason.
- Cornelius Clark, a member of the influential Social, Civil, and Statistical Association in Washington (Cook and Thomas also were members).
- Benjamin M. McCoy, a teacher and leader in the Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington.
Their steward was Lincoln’s emigration commissioner, the white Methodist preacher James Mitchell, who had spread the word through the black churches of Washington that Father Abraham was interested in talking.
The delegates had been chosen the afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 14, 1862, during a meeting at the Union Bethel AME Church in Washington. The temperature in the room was lukewarm, for although the congregation was honored by the president’s request, the members also were wary.
By way of prayer and vigorous debate, they counseled each other to refrain from acting with haste or from giving the impression that such a select group of leaders could possibly represent the black community as a whole. More important, they pledged to remain steadfast against colonization when it came up, even passing a resolution, historian Eric Foner reports in his Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, “calling discussion of colonization ‘inexpedient, inauspicious, and impolitic.’ ”
With these warnings aired, the men then proceeded from Union Bethel AME Church to the executive mansion that very day. The tick-tock can be found in an editorial by the writer Cerebus (a pseudonym) in the Christian Recorderon Aug. 30, 1862:
“There was held in Union Bethel, on the 9th instant, a meeting of the several pastors of the city, which was presided over by Rev. James Mitchell, who styles himself (per advertisement) as the ‘Commissioner of Emigration.’ It was resolved at the said meeting that a delegation of five members of each church, headed by their pastor, be requested to meet in U.B. Church on the 14th instant, at 2 o’clock, P.M., to have a consultation with President LINCOLN. The President failing to appear, a committee of five were appointed to wait on him at the Presidential mansion, at 4 o’clock.”
The Lincoln Treatment
Ever since working on the PBS series Looking for Lincoln, and my companion book, Lincoln on Race and Slavery, in 2009, I’ve wondered what it must have been like to stand with those five free men of color when, arriving at the White House, they heard Honest Abe tell them that Congress had already set aside funds for a colonization scheme he supported and that he was counting on their support.
A stenographer was there to take down the president’s words, Foner writes, and soon Lincoln’s words would be all over the press.
Here’s how he addressed the free black delegation: “You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated.”
This is the Abraham Lincoln they didn’t tell you about in school.
As the free black leaders soon discovered, Lincoln’s invitation to discuss policy was a pretext for a one-sided sales pitch.
“I do not propose to discuss this, but to present it as a fact with which we have to deal,” Lincoln continued. “I cannot alter it if I would. It is a fact, about which we all think and feel alike, I and you.”
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