April V. Taylor
Black people have been taught for years that their freedom is due in large part to Abraham Lincoln and his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. What many fail to realize is that Lincoln never wanted to free slaves and have them live on American soil. A recent article written for The Root by scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores this topic and reveals that Lincoln implored free blacks to go to Africa “for the sake of their race,” and out of respect for white people.
Lincoln held a forum with delegates from area black churches at the Union Bethel AME Church in Washington. Five free men went on to hold further discussion with Lincoln in which Lincoln told the men that Congress had already set aside funds for free blacks to go to Africa and start colonies of free slaves there. Lincoln stated, “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.” In other words, Lincoln felt that white and black people suffered undue hardship by the presence of free black people in America, and his intention in freeing slaves was not because he saw them as equally human but rather as a thorn in the flesh of the privileged white man that he wanted to remove by financing colonization with government funds so that free blacks could live in Africa or Central America, not in the United States.
In the sales pitch Lincoln made to the delegates, he even tried to justify colonization of free blacks as a way to ensure the release and freedom of those who remained enslaved. Lincoln put it this way by suggesting that free black people moving to Africa would appease white slaveholders into releasing black slaves from bondage, “If you could give a start to white people, you would open a wide door for many to be made free.” Lincoln went on to implore the free black people to put the comfort and concern of white people over their own interests, stating, “For the sake of your race you should sacrifice something of your present comfort for the purpose of being as grand in that respect as the white people.”
Lincoln even went so far as to suggest that the freedom fought for Americans during the Revolutionary War was in fact only meant to benefit the white people, like George Washington, who had fought for it. The delegation who met with Lincoln took the message back to the black community with many having a divided reaction. Some felt that Lincoln made valid points about the hardships blacks would face if they remained in America as free men, while others felt that their ancestors had worked, fought, bled and died for their right to one day live as free men in a country they helped build.
Perhaps Martin Luther King Jr. summed Lincoln’s views up best when he stated, “Our…president were tortured deep in their hearts by the race question. Lincoln’s torments are well known, his vascillations were facts.” The important point is that when there was no other option to redeem America from the suffering it endured because of slavery, Lincolns “hesitation had not stayed his hand when historic necessity charted but one course.” Despite his reservations and lack of respect for black people as equal human beings to white people, freedom for all people was written into law and into the Constitution. Despite this unprecedented acknowledgement of black people’s humanity and right to be equal, the most troubling aspect is not how Lincoln felt but that black people still are fighting to receive equal treatment by institutions, society and the law.