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José Martí, the United States, and Race$

Anne Fountain

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780813049748

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: January 2015

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813049748.001.0001

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African Americans And The Post–Civil War United States

African Americans And The Post–Civil War United States

(p.48) 4 African Americans And The Post–Civil War United States
José Martí, the United States, and Race

Anne Fountain

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

Martí was witness to unhappy consequences of the U.S. Civil War, including a post-Reconstruction era in the South full of violence and repression. He reported on lynchings of blacks throughout the 1880s and on a black man burned to death in Texarkana in 1892. He also wrote of education for African Americans as a path to progress. In his much-studied 1886 chronicle of the Charleston earthquake he gave specific and often stereotypical descriptors of blacks as a race. Martí showed the difficulties blacks experienced in the face of white resentment in the South, but he also recorded success stories in the North. He offered reports of curious cases involving blacks in the U.S. South, without disparaging the African Americans. Martí’s call for justice is echoed in the poetry of Cuba’s national poet, Nicolás Guillén, in the twentieth century.

Keywords:   U.S. Civil War, Post-Reconstruction era, Lynching, Charleston earthquake, White resentment, U.S. South, Nicolás Guillén

In between the vivid instances of slave abuse that José Martí witnessed in Cuba prior to his deportation to Spain and his portrayal in the 1890s of Cuban blacks as forgiving partners in the Cuban Revolution lay a vast panorama of black and white relations in post–Civil War America from which lessons could be taken. In the decade and more of his reporting on conditions for African Americans in the United States, Martí drew in broad strokes and through discrete details the sobering aftermath of emancipation, the angry stirrings of white resentment, the difficulties in creating racial harmony in a new social structure, and the promise of progress through education. Most certainly the brutal backlash and terrifying reprisals experienced by former slaves in the United States formed a model he did not wish to see repeated in Cuba.

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust convincingly shows how four years of war, carnage on the battlefield, and a staggering death toll induced a lingering national trauma. Symptoms included constant references to the Civil War, its protagonists, and its repercussions in the post-war decades, and Martí absorbed this refrain as it played out in the pages of the New York press. The lives of Civil War generals, commemorative events, recollections of the abolitionist struggle, and political activities linked to the war's aftermath filled pages of the newspapers, journals, and books that served as sources for his chronicles. These articles cover the years following Reconstruction, initial signs of progress in the Southern states, struggles to reconcile the forces of the Blue and the Gray, aspects of everyday life for former slaves, instances of peculiar behavior among Southern blacks, and finally, dramatically, acts of violence (p.49) and lynchings. The prospects for African Americans living in the North were also part of the reporting and often stood in contrast to black life in the South. These portions of Martí's American scenes comprise a substantial part of his writing about race and reveal a wide range of perspectives touching on racial questions. Further, they point to what he learned about black and white relations from the U.S. experience and its possible implications for Cuba.

Depictions of the post-Reconstruction era form a considerable part of the five volumes of Escenas Norteamericanas (North American Scenes). Sometimes these pieces stand alone, but many times they are interspersed with other items of news and comment in the essays sent to Spanish American newspapers. In this chapter 1 look at what José Martí wrote about this period and how the way he adapted and absorbed material from U.S. sources informs his perspectives on race. The chapter also gives context for some of his infrequently cited commentaries about race.

As a boy of twelve, José Martí had joined in Havana's mourning of the death of Lincoln, remembering and lauding the fact that the U.S. president had freed slaves by decree in 1863. Just five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Cuba's cry for independence, the Grito de Yara, also proclaimed freedom for slaves, although the declaration was symbolic rather than effectual, since slavery persisted in Cuba until 1886. In truth, except for the thirty-eight days prior to his death in 1895, Martí never lived in a non-slave-holding Cuba. It was in the United States that he experienced the realities of a nation fully coming to grips with the realities and consequences of abolition.

Oscar Montero's chapter on Martí and race notes the attention Martí gave to attacks against blacks and references the records kept by the Chicago Daily Tribune, beginning in 1882, on lynchings in the United States. Indeed, when I sat as a reader in the New York Public Library, browsing page after page of the New York Tribune and other newspapers of the 1880s, I found the cumulative references to Southern violence and lynchings to be hard to forget—page after page of articles, much as Martí would have seen them. Did this race-linked violence described by the U.S. press prompt concerns about Cuba? Is this a part of the reason for his claims in Patria that there would be no race war in Cuba? Certainly the stark and unhappy consequences of Reconstruction would have been troubling for Martí.

(p.50) Although Martí made numerous references to racial conflict in the South, toward the end of his chronicle writing, one piece is particularly intense. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s the number of lynchings of blacks in the United States steadily rose, reaching a peak of more than 160 deaths in 1892. In the same year Martí sent a dramatic account to the Mexican newspaper El Partido Liberal describing how five thousand townsfolk in Texarkana, on the Texas and Arkansas border, watched as a black man was bound to a tree stump, doused with fuel, and set on fire. Although the article was published in Martí's lifetime, until recently this article did not appear among the collections of his works and therefore has seldom been cited by those writing about Martí and race. It appears in the thick volume En los Estados Unidos: Periodismo de 1881 a 1892, Edición crítica, edited by Roberto Fernández Retamar and Pedro Pablo Rodríguez, published in 2003, and in English translation in Selected Writings, edited by Esther Allen. Martí's frightful description, “the black man was burned alive in the presence of five thousand souls” (1507), was a harbinger of what the American South and other parts of the nation as well were to experience well into the twentieth century: lynchings and burnings of African Americans as spectacle, with families present, photographs and postcards issued to record the events, and gruesome captions such as “negro barbecue.”1 As Martí recounted the incident, men on horseback, women in their finery, and strolling couples gathered to see a black man named Coy put to death and cheered when Mrs. Jewell set him ablaze. Martí's only allusion to the reason for the killing was to quote from the black man: “I gave no offense to Mrs. Jewell! You're going to kill me, but I gave her no offense!” (1507). There was no mention of the salacious details that appeared in the nation's newspapers, which reported how Mrs. Jewell, a respectable white woman with a five-month-old baby, had been raped by a negro while her husband was away.2

The Texarkana killing is the ferocious part of the picture. But Martí as translator also wrote of social events and curious cases. In the same letter in which Martí, under the general heading of “El negro en los Estados Unidos” (“The black in the United States”), tells of Coy's terrible death, he also describes a Cakewalk at Madison Square Garden involving black couples and tells about a group of descendants of slaves headed to Liberia. The Cakewalk, a spectacle where blacks strutted before an audience for (p.51) the prize of an elaborate cake, was a tradition from slave times that existed into the twentieth century. Martí's report reflects the tenor of a New York press editorial, “The Cake Walk,” which held that the event was demeaning to blacks and had as its purpose exposing them “to the derision of an unsympathetic concourse of whites.” In Martí's chronicle he contrasted the shameless cakewalkers with black professionals who listened to Tchaikovsky in their homes and had books by Draper and Littré on their shelves (1505–6). He asserted that the mockery occasioned by the cakewalking was an affront to blacks who excelled in the professional realm: a distinguished pastor and a top-of-the-class law school graduate, along with doctors, historians, and award-winning poets (1505–6).3

Martí's comment on the Liberian crusade completes the black portraiture. While one man suffers an agonizing death at the hands of a white mob, and a New York “social event” contrasts black success stories with shameless cakewalkers, the third scenario reveals a different kind of desperation, that of African Americans from Arkansas and from Indian Territories who want to go to Liberia, “where they don't burn our men” (1505).4

Martí's stress on the importance of education in the cakewalker piece is underscored by what he saw taking place among African Americans in the United States: advancement in economic and social spheres as a result of literacy and access to higher education. David Goldfield attests to the rather remarkable progress in literacy in the South after the Civil War: “In 1865, less than 10 percent of southern blacks were literate. Five years later, that figure had climbed to 18.6 percent, but by 1890, 55 percent of southern blacks were literate. American blacks ranked far ahead of former slaves in other post-emancipation societies such as Trinidad, Haiti, and British Guiana. Black literacy rates compared favorably with some European countries as well. In 1900 Spain had a literacy rate of 37 percent, and Italy 52 percent” (527). Goldfield further notes:”When northern missionaries left due to fear or lack of funds, black teachers took over and schools persisted. By the early 1890s, there were 150 black newspapers in the South” (527).

In writing of the U.S. South, Martí reprised a message deeply embedded in his life and works: education was a key to advancement for people of color. He noted African American strides: the purchase of homes, the establishment of savings, the founding of banks, and the creation of black schools. Since blacks were being wrongly disenfranchised and pushed aside (p.52) from white institutions, Martí noted that they were creating their own seminaries and colleges. Even as he lauded black progress against formidable odds, the revolutionary and reformer criticized those who punished blacks for the conditions in which they lived instead of helping to lift them from poverty. He declared that reparations were fitting for those who had suffered as slaves (11: 237–38). Although Martí did not dwell at length on literacy efforts undertaken in the United States, a campaign for literacy among Cuban blacks was a centerpiece of his agenda. He saw clear evidence in the United States that education was a path to advancement for former slaves and for their children.

Martí's depictions of African Americans in the United States are not uniform and evolved over time. By the mid-1880s he was regularly including comments about blacks in the letters sent to the Spanish American press. In one of his much-studied pieces, about the Charleston earthquake of 1886, the depictions of black reaction to the frightening force of nature seem stereotypical, if not—at least by today's lights—condescending. Basically paraphrasing and translating from newspaper accounts, the article tells of “primitive fear,” “close association with nature,” and “violent and ingenuous fright.” It notes religious manifestations in the black community: hymns sung with intensity, prayers proffered with passion and poetry, bodies swaying in rhythm, palms lifted to the heavens, and the vigorous clapping of hands. In addition there are allusions to physical rapture. In an intricate metaphorical linkage, Martí connects the sons of Africa to the majesty of the lion and later relates their fright to that inspired by that same fearsome beast.

In this essay the Cuban reporter speaks directly of a race with distinctive characteristics:

Every race brings with it into the world its mandate and it must be left its right of way, lest the harmony of the universe be disturbed so that it may employ its strength and fulfill its mission with all the decorum and fruitfulness of its natural independence…. It seems as though a black sun illumined those men from Africa! Their blood is fire; their passion like biting; their eyes flames, and everything in their nature has the energy of Africa's venoms, the enduring potency of her balms. The Negro has a great native goodness, which neither (p.53) the martyrdom of slavery has perverted, nor his virile fierceness obscured. But he, more than the men of any other race lives in such an intimate communion with nature, that he seems more capable than other men of shuddering and rejoicing with her changes.5

Notable also in the Charleston earthquake piece is the recognition Martí gives to black religion as a part of Western traditions. At the same time that he connects the black citizens of Charleston to Africa, he observes that most were born in the Americas and that they know the Bible. He offered (in Spanish) expressions from the lips of the frightened former slaves: “my Master Jesus,” “my Sweet Jesus,” my “Blessed Christ,” as well as Old Testament invocations: “This is Sodom and Gomorrah,” “Mount Horeb is going to open up, it surely is!” (11: 72–73). These descriptions point to a significant racial aspect that the Cuban observed in U.S. life: the prevalence of black adherence to Protestant patterns of worship and the notable role played by African American preachers and pastors, something that had no real equivalent in Cuba.

In 1885 Martí's extended comment on post–Civil War politics, framed in the context of the election of Democrat Grover Cleveland, signaled hopeful signs of harmony between the races in the South but also efforts to exploit the black vote (10: 314). In 1887 he portrayed a new South, where the end of slavery had ushered in a more inventive and industrial society—one with cordial relations between blacks and whites in the former Confederacy (11: 155–57). His reports of positive interactions, however, were fleeting. As Goldfield summarizes in America Aflame,”Northerners rapidly left the war behind. Their quick embrace of reconciliation reflected less a recognition of the moral equivalency of Union and Confederate causes than a desire to move on. Southern whites, on the other hand, may have talked of reconciliation, but beneath the veneer of accommodation lay resentment. They did not move on; they moved back” (11).

Resentment by whites became a common theme in Martí's narrative. In 1887 he told of politics in Kansas, with voting by black women as a part of women's suffrage. The blacks were eager to cast their votes alongside those who had previously been their owners, but white women resented seeing their servants and former slaves exercising the rights they enjoyed (11: 185–87). Letters to South American newspapers in August and September 1889 (p.54) stated that black fertility was viewed with resentment by Southern whites, who saw population gain by those of color as a form of advancement. The Southern solution, according to Martí was to lynch, exterminate, and intimidate the black man and chase him down like a fox (12: 324–36).

Much of the substantial writing by Martí on the status of blacks in the United States was between 1887 and 1889. An article called “Cleveland: The incident of the flags” had as a primary focus President Cleveland's desire to return the vanquished flags of the Confederacy to the South and the conciliatory meeting of veterans at the Gettysburg battlefield. At the same time the last part of the article carried the subtitle “The black race in the United States” and reported on the opposite trend—white terrorism against blacks. Martí described an incident in which white officials formed a hunting party in Oak Ridge, Louisiana, to murder blacks in retaliation for the crime of a black man having sexual relations with a white woman (11: 237). This is the incident Montero studies in “Against Race” and that is discussed in chapter 2 of this book. The outcome of what the New York Times called “the Oak Ridge Riot” was predictably stacked in favor of the Southern whites: one white man was killed, and twelve black men lost their lives.

An intriguing aspect of José Martí's writing on the U.S. South was the attention he paid to curious cases that were sometimes akin to tabloid reporting. When Postmaster John R. Lewis appointed an intelligent and courteous black man to a post where a young white woman would be working under the black man's jurisdiction, the decision caused Lewis to be burned in effigy in Atlanta and the young woman to quit her job. The Cuban reporter offered up details of the huffy response by the white woman:“Imagine asking me to exchange papers hand to hand and receiving instructions from and coming face to face every day with a negro who is not my equal and who has been appointed as my superior?” (12: 292). Lewis's reply to the local newspaper's complaint: “I'm not going to name a negro to a post beneath him as a mere scribe when the nation names a mulatto, Frederick Douglass, as the representative of the United States in Haiti” (12: 293).6

In the same article sent to newspapers in Argentina and Mexico, Martí covered a messianic movement near Savannah led by a white man named Christopher Orth. Orth, who claimed to incarnate Christ, gathered a (p.55) following of several hundred armed blacks and caused alarm among public officials as well as concern among whites who depended upon black laborers for work in turpentine farms, sawmills, and plantations. Orth's followers, both men and women, swayed by his promise to lead them to Canaan, the Promised Land, gave up money, left their crops behind, and ignored pleas from their black pastors. After Orth was taken into custody, his role was assumed by a black man named Edward James, who also claimed to be Jesus and attracted a robust number of black followers. Surely a lesson from the delusional appeal of Orth and James was that desperate and uneducated people could be led astray even by an unlikely promise of hope, although Martí did not denigrate or disparage the followers, as did much of the American press.7

In another account the chronicler summarized the events surrounding the murder trial of Dr. Thomas Ballard McDow in Charleston, South Carolina. As Martí told the story, a certain Captain Dawson accused McDow of seducing a pretty Swiss servant girl employed in the Dawson home, and when the two men met, McDow shot and killed the accuser. When a jury with a majority of blacks accepted the doctor's claim of self-defense and acquitted him of the crime, the black community in Charleston rejoiced at the verdict. The apparent reason for the jury's decision and Dr. McDow's reprieve was that the man he killed was loathed by the city's people of color. Dawson, an editor at the Charleston News and Observer, depicted blacks as natural prey and had publicly declared that robbing the virtue of a black woman was far less important than the loss of innocence for a white woman. He claimed that blacks had no right to complain when a man of their race was lynched for merely looking at a white woman, since the flower of a white woman's virtue was different from that of a black woman (12: 272, 282–84).8 With this piece of writing, Martí illustrated some of the ironies in U.S. race relations in the 1880s. There was legal clout for blacks, as represented by the composition of the jury and McDow's acquittal thanks to the jury's black presence. At the same time the article revealed public acknowledgment of racist views as evidenced by Dawson's proclamations. Thus Martí let his Latin American readers see a measure of progress for blacks under and following Reconstruction and also a foundation for the obsessive repression with which whites would rule Southern society in the years to follow.

(p.56) The dismal prospect for African Americans in the South—where whites, angered over the Republican agenda that had challenged their political status, and fearful of any power in black hands, had lashed out against former slaves—was not the only scenario in the chronicles. In the same essay where Martí's impassioned paragraphs deplored vigilantism and criticized Southern hypocrisy, he wrote of a mixed-race assembly in Boston to commemorate the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. John Greenleaf Whittier, the Quaker poet, sent verses to be read; eloquent testimonials from the abolitionist ranks were heard; and the ceremony opened with remarks by the clergyman who had officiated at John Brown's burial. A young black man read the proclamation with a vigorous voice that, according to Martí, “rang through the air like the echo of a hammer hitting steel” (12: 336). Martí rejoiced in the success of blacks in New York. He said it gladdened the heart to bear witness to prosperous black families living in the environs of Sixth Avenue, who took pride in their church and pastor, their lawyers, their physicians, and in the triumph of a prize-winning black student in medical school (12: 205).

Martí's descriptions correspond to the different times in which his articles were composed, to the evolving state of race relations as reflected in the U.S. press, and to the different audiences he sought to reach. An excellent and thorough study of José Martí's writing about the U.S. South by Britton W. Newman points specifically to the variety of perspectives about race relations and the prospects for racial harmony that one finds in those accounts. Most importantly, the Cuban made visceral connections with the experiences of the black population in the United States on many levels and in many ways and found lessons in race relations that he could apply to his own country. The ominous signs of hatred and the vicious racism that permeated the South showed that emancipation did not end racial woes. In championing the efforts of African Americans to overcome daunting obstacles, he saw the importance of achievements and progress in education. He recognized the long road from degradation and abuse that many blacks would have to travel. And he grasped that blacks who were harassed and persecuted in the country where they were born would cling together, as Southern blacks did, and accumulate savings as a refuge, because savings were a patria, for those who did not have one of their own. Martí was self-identifying with blacks in the U.S. South when he wrote that the (p.57) pleading look that one could read in the eyes of beleaguered blacks was the expression of those who knew exile (11: 238). At the same time, in this example Martí could foresee a challenge. If blacks felt marginalized in their own country, how could they be true nation-builders? For the Cuba whose future he was building, Martí needed a unified front, with both blacks and whites identifying primarily as Cubans rather than along racial lines. This was the underpinning of his plans for an independent nation.

Writing about race in the post–Civil War United States gave examples for Patria. Martí's 1894 article “A plate of lentils” offered a somewhat subjective history of race relations in Cuba, with comparisons between the United States and Cuba in regard to slavery. He noted that Cuba, in ending slavery by decree rather than through a punishing war that did not eradicate causes of conflict, had been spared the blood and hatred that marred the American experience (3: 26–30). In “About Blacks and Whites” Martí again commented about the United States, saying that its silence about slavery had provoked an exhausting and bitter war of secession. Obviously he knew that not everyone had been silent about slavery. His repeated references to U.S. abolitionists and their literature, as described in chapter 5, are evidence of his considerable knowledge of and appreciation for the champions of emancipation. More likely the statement was a way of declaring that the United States had not acted in time, that the Cuba he envisioned would anticipate issues of race openly as he was doing in Patria, and that the Cuban experience would be different from that of its northern neighbor. And yet slavery and post-slavery experiences in the United States are a backdrop and a historical connection to Cuba.

In his translations of and interpretations about black and white relations in the United States, Martí moved past the triumph of Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to sobering realities. Could he have imagined as a boy in Havana, sporting a black armband to mourn the American president's death, that decades of violence and terror would be unleashed against former slaves in the United States? Yet the reporting in the 1880s and 1890s on savage reprisals against African Americans in the U.S. South and the tears Martí shed as a boy staring up at an African hung from a ceibo tree spring from the same well of anguish. His is a voice linking African Americans in the land of his birth to African Americans in the United States, in a common bond of suffering. It would remain for Nicolás Guillén, (p.58) the twentieth-century national poet of Cuba, to complete in a single work of poetry the images of weeping and outrage expressed in Martí's works. In Guillén's eloquent elegy to Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old Chicago boy murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for talking to and whistling at a white woman, the Mississippi River cries hard tears as it passes the emblems of injustice: silent trees with memories of lynchings, burning crosses, nighttime raids of the Ku Klux Klan, and tragic black men set on fire in a South still echoing the crimes reported by Martí at the end of the nineteenth century.


(1) . The degree of hysteria and bloodlust surrounding the charge of rape (often unfounded) against black men in the 1890s and early twentieth-century South is exemplified by the case of Sam Hose, who was slowly tortured and then burned to death by a mob in Georgia in 1899. See Grant, 162–63.

(2) . Martí's translation of the lines from the U.S. press: “‘¡No ofendí a la señora Jewell! ¡me van a matar pero no la ofendí!’” (1507) is suggestive but does not make clear that the black man was put to death because of the charge of rape. The New (p.138) York Times article of February 21, 1892,“A Negro Burned Alive,” describes the crime in these words: “Ed Coy, the negro who last Saturday evening brutally outraged Mrs. Henry Jewell, a much respected white woman at her house … was captured this morning, and is now in eternity, having atoned in a horrible manner for his fearful crime.” A Texas paper of the same date in a column titled “Burn Him!” gives a report directly from Texarkana that explicitly mentions the “fiendish crime of rape” and includes as subheadings: “Negro Coy Pays the Penalty, of His Atrocious Deed—He Showed No Mercy to His Victim, and None Was Shown Him. The Victim of His Brutality Fires the Funeral Pile That Sends His Guilty Soul into the Black Beyond.”

(3) . See Baldwin for more information about the stereotypes associated with the Cakewalk.

(4) . See New York Times articles of February 1892: “More Mistaken Negroes; These Came from Arkansas To Go to Liberia” and “A Lot of Deluded Negroes; Stranded on the Road to Their Promised Land.”

(5) . Translation by Luis A. Baralt in Martí on the U.S.A., 102. For the original, see Complete Works, 11: 72–73.

(6) . I have translated freely here. See comments in Grant, The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia, 135: “When Atlanta's white Republican postmaster, General John R. Lewis, hired a black assistant, both he and the clerk were burned in effigy by outraged Democrats who considered the appointment an outrage to white womanhood.”

(7) . Headlines such as “Georgia's Messiah Craze: Negroes of Low Intelligence Becoming Demoralized” heralded the story. See New York Times, July 29, 1889.

(8) . The McDow case was extensively covered by the press of the time. See, for example, New York Times, June 30, 1889.