Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Problems of the Age: 35: The Negro Question

Problems of the Age: 35: The Negro Question

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 30, 2011

For links to other parts of this series, see this chart.

For a statement on the unofficial nature (i.e., personal interpretation for discussion purposes, not necessarily representative of church doctrine) of these lessons, see this notice.


Dealing with Religious, Social and Economic Questions and Their Solution.
A Study for the Quorums and Classes of the Melchizedek Priesthood. 1917-1918.

By Dr. Joseph M. Tanner

XXXV. – The Negro Question

Its Origin. – The Civil War did not end the negro question. The freeing of that race from the bonds of servitude brought about one of the most destructive and hate-engendering wars that the world has ever known, and gave rise to what is known in politics as the solid South. During all of the period of reconstruction the animosities between members of Congress from the north and south were often wholly beyond control, and disputations on the floors of the Senate and House sometimes led to physical encounters. Economic conditions in the early history of the United States were responsible for the transportation of hundreds of thousands of black men from their home in Africa to the land of freedom and to conditions wholly unlike those to which the black race was inured. It was no fault of that unfortunate people that they came in contact with the Anglo-Saxon race. They were creatures of the slave trade carried on generally by the Arabs in Africa and were the victims of a slavery that is often portrayed as in most instances heart-rending.

Liberty is a very precious boon. The lowest of races prize it. The freedom of speech, the right to move about as one sees fit, is one of the boons of government for which the world has been struggling for many centuries.

The Prophet Joseph foresaw the war which the negro question would bring about, and his prophetic utterances are historically familiar to all the Saints. He would have solved the question by the purchase of the negro’s freedom. Such, however, was not permitted to be (See Era, Dec., 1917, p. 170). The question of whether or not the negro should be free was a burning question between two important sections of our country – the North and the south. It was not simply a question of compensation. It was a question of arguments, of long standing disputations, and of hatreds that had grown out of political conditions in view of the division between the North and the South. It was one of those forces that had passed human adjustments by any visible means, and it led to a most fearful war, whose consequences in our national hatred have been felt for more than a generation.

Effects of Emancipation. – One extreme often follows another. The negroes were lifted out of a condition of servitude and placed not only into a new world of social and financial freedom, but were given all the political rights which belonged to the white race. They were grossly incompetent, they were unsuited for self-government, and above all, they had proven no capacity for rule in a government such as ours was. That was no fault of theirs, unless it may be said that it was a race incapacity. There has been a world of discussion as to whether it was a wise thing, politically or economically or socially to do. The question has been thrashed out for upwards of fifty years on the floors of Congress. However, it is an acknowledged fact, at times it brought the people of the North and the South to the verge of armed forces. Unhappily, the question is not solved in our own day and there are prospects of future troubles which give anxiety to the best, most thoughtful minds of our age. The question will not down. It confronts us in numerous ways, and all the time there is a world of hatred growing out of the differences between the black and the white races. Hatreds in time bear fruitage. They have their evil consequences to future generations. They are a part of our inheritance, and thus we go on accumulating, year after year, the most dangerous explosives to our social, economic, and governmental life. Even now the last echoes of an awful tragedy between the negroes and the whites at St. Louis has not died away. Our government is, at this writing, carrying on the trial of colored soldiers who in Texas made a raid upon one of the cities and killed a number of inhabitants. Wherever the negroes find themselves at any advantage whatever they are quick to resent the wrongs which they believe, and which they have been taught to believe, have been piled upon them for generations. We have frequent accounts of the burning of negroes at the stake. Many of that unfortunate race have been led in ignorance to commit outrages upon whites – outrages that are not entirely unknown to the white race – but there is a psychological barrier between the two. What si done by the one is unspeakably more horrible than that committed by the other, and the ethnological barriers between the two have no prospect of breaking down.

Intermarriage. – All practices of intermarriage have brought the offspring of the two races completely on the side of the colored man, and even when this intermarriage is carried on for a number of generations, eliminating almost entirely the color of the skin, the so-called “taint of the blood” is there. The gulf between them is impassable.

The Irrepressible Conflict. – For a long time the people of the North, out of the zeal of the Civil War, were the advocates of negro rights. They resented through the press what they considered the unjust treatment of the black man and his failure to receive the political recognition that was rightfully due him. The negro question was the absorbing question of the South. More and more it is invading the North. Into all the large cities large numbers have migrated, only to be compelled to occupy certain districts isolated for their habitation. In the North it is also becoming an industrial question. The black man is not invited into the great labor unions; as a rule he is excluded from a large number of employments; he is often discriminated against in he schools. The ideals, therefore, which certain northern people erected with respect to their unfortunate colored brethren of the south, have not been successfully carried out. They are not today, so far as human interest can aid, capable of any satisfactory realization.

The Economic Phase. – The negro question is therefore becoming more and more an economic one, and it is doubtful if the North will be any better able to solve the problem than the people of the south have been. In such antagonisms there is always more or less injustice. Views necessarily become extreme, and extreme convictions lead to unjust results and violent antagonisms. These antagonisms are growing. The problem looms up on all sides. Violence is done to the black man, sometimes by the black man to the white man. Growing hatreds can mean nothing less than growing violence. Violence begets war, and there are not a few who sincerely believe that as soon as the negro feels himself competent to strike, he will strike in the most dangerous manner. We are bringing him into our armies. We are drilling him to fight. We call upon him to offer his life in any war to which his country may be a party. He fought, and fought valiantly, in the war against Spain, and will be found by the thousands in the ranks of the American army now in or moving to France.

The question is full of pathos. What shall be done? What can be done? In the days of Noah, the daughters of man were fair to look upon and the children of God married them. This led to the flood. A mixture of races at that time, as we understand from our religious doctrines, between the dark and the white races, led to the destruction of the human race. We do not believe in the mixture of these two races. All experience forbids it. Our religious teachings give us fundamental reasons for the differences which should be maintained.

The movement of the negro is now growing rapidly from the farms which he has cultivated to the large cities in which he is becoming an important factor. In the North he enjoys his political franchise. He may exercise it in such a way as to compel at least some measure of political respect; but that franchise freely exercised in the North, carries with it dangers that may lead to violence even among those who have been the most professed friends of the negro. In the south the views of the representatives of this race are irreconcilable.

Conflicting Views. – I quote here from an address of Senator Jas. K. Vardaman, from Mississippi:

But the door of hope might have remained closed so far as the progress of the negro was to make for himself was concerned. He has never created for himself any civilization. He has never risen above th4e government of a club. He has never written a language. His achievements in architecture are limited to the thatched-roofed hut or a hole in the ground. No monuments have been builded by him to body forth and perpetuate in the memory of posterity the virtues of his ancestors.

For countless ages he has looked upon the rolling sea and never dreamed of a sail. In truth, he has never progressed, save and except when under the influence and absolute control of a superior race. His opportunities have been great. The negro helped to build the temples of Rameses, he polished the columns of Karnak, he toiled at the hundred-gated Thebes, he was touched by the tides of civilization that swept across the Eastern Hemisphere in the forenoon of the ages, and yet it made no more impression upon him as a race than a drop of water on the oily back of a duck. He is living in Africa today, in the land where he sprang, indigenous, in substantially the same condition, occupying the same rude hut, governed by the same club, worshiping the4 same fetish that he did when the Pharaohs ruled in Egypt. He has never had any civilization except that which has been inculcated by a superior race. And it is a lamentable fact that his civilization lasts only so long as he is in the hands of the white man who inculcates it. When left to himself he has universally gone back to the barbarism of the jungle.

Let us consider his condition in Haiti. It will throw a flood of light upon our own American problem. The negro acquired control of this island more than 100 years ago. Thomas Jefferson said: ‘This will test the negro’s capacity for self-government’

With his usual prescience and foresight, Jefferson predicted failure. But he said: ‘Let him try it. We will help him.’

Haiti was at that time the gem of the Antilles. The most magnificent cane fields, coffee plantations, and fruit groves graced the landscape of that delightful little island. Now shift the scene. Look at Haiti today, after 100 years of negro rule. After 100 years of assistance by the white man – assistance with money, with example, precept, and all of those superior virtues which characterized the civilization of the white race, what do we find there today? Sir Spencer St. John, who represented the English government at Port au Prince for twenty years, wrote a book entitled, Haiti, or Black Republic. When this English officer first visited Haiti he looked with compassion upon the black man. He thought he had been denied an equal chance in the race of life. He thought he had been the victim of slavery – that the elements of manhood had been stifled by such oppression as some of the distinguished senators on this floor in this debate have called attention to as having been practiced in the southern States of America. Yes; he thought, ‘the negro was a sunburned Yankee, who had not been given a square deal.’

Sir Spencer St. John remained as the representative of his government at the court of the black republic for twenty years. He made a close study of the question. He informed himself as to the racial peculiarities of the negro, and his testimony to the world is that the negro is incapable of self-government. He is incapable of sustaining a civilization all his own. Further, he says:

After an experience of 100 years, Haiti has proved a failure. There is no semblance of civil government there, except in the seaports, which are dominated by whites and multattoes.

On the other hand, W.E.B. DuBois, an eminent leader of the colored race, speaking of the results of the prejudice which held down the people of his race, writes as follows:]

No matter how well trained a negro may be, or how fitted for work of any kind, he cannot in the ordinary course of competition hope to be much more than a menial servant.

He cannot get clerical or supervisory work to do save in exceptional cases.

He cannot teach save in a few of the remaining negro schools.

He cannot become a mechanic except for small transient jobs, and cannot join a trades union.

A negro woman has but three careers open to her in this city: domestic service, sewing, or married life.

As to keeping work:

The negro suffers in competition more severely than white men.

Change in fashion is causing him to be replaced by whites in the better paid positions of domestic service.

Whim and accident will cause him to lose a hard-earned place more quickly than the same things would affect a white man.

Being few in number compared with the whites the crime or carelessness of a few of his race is easily imputed to all, and the reputation of the good, industrious, and reliable suffer thereby.

Because negro workmen may not often work side by side with white workmen, the individual black workman is rated not by his own efficiency, but by the efficiency of a whole group of black fellow workmen which may often be low.

Because of these difficulties, which virtually increase competition in his case, he is forced to take lower wages for the same work than white workmen.

Men are used to seeing negroes in inferior positions; when, therefore, by any chance a negro gets in a better position, most men immediately conclude that he is not fitted for it, even before he has a chance to show his fitness.

If, therefore, he set up a store, men will not patronize him.

As to his expenditure:

The comparative smallness of the patronage of the negro, and the dislike of other customers, make it usual to increase the charges or difficulties in certain directions in which a negro must spend money.

He must pay more house rent for worse houses than most white people pay.

He is sometimes liable to insult or reluctant service in some restaurants, hotels, and stores, at public resorts, theaters, and places of recreation, and at nearly all barber shops.

As to his children:

The negro finds it extremely difficult to rear children in such an atmosphere and not have them either cringing or impudent: if he impresses upon them patience with their lot, they may grow up satisfied with their condition; if he inspires them with ambition to rise, they may grow up to despise their own people, hate the whites, and become embittered with the world.

His children are discriminated against, often in public schools.

They are advised when seeking employment to become waiters and maids.

They are liable to species of insult and temptation peculiarly trying to children.

As to social intercourse:

In all the walks of life the negro is liable to met some objection to his presence or some discourteous treatment; and the ties of friendship or memory seldom are strong enough to hold across the color line.

If an invitation is issued to the public for any occasion, the negro can never know whether he would be welcomed or not; if he goes he is liable to have his feelings hurt and get into unpleasant altercation; if he stays away he is blamed for indifference.

If he meet a lifelong white friend on the street, he is in a dilemma; if he does not greet the friend he is put down as boorish and impolite; if he does greet the friend he is liable to be flatly snubbed.

If by chance he is introduced to a white woman or man, he expects to be ignored on the next meeting, and usually is.

White friends may call on him, but he is scarcely expected to call on them, save for strictly business matters.

If he gain the affections of a white woman and marry her, he may invariably expect that slurs will be thrown on her reputation and on his, and that both his and her race will shun their company.

When he dies he cannot be buried beside white corpses.

Any one of these things happening now and then would not be remarkable or call for especial comment; but when one group of people suffer all these little differences of treatment and discriminations and insults continually, the result is either discouragement, or bitterness, or oversensitiveness, or recklessness. And a people feeling thus cannot do their best.

The present war will make a heavier demand for the kind of labor the colored man is fitted to do. Thousands will migrate from the south and take employment surrendered by the call to arms. The whites will return, and there can be no doubt that they will endeavor to crowd the negro back. Will they be able to do it? The negro question is full of ugly possibilities.

Negro Excluded from Exercise of Government in Churches. – The negro race in the Church are excluded from its government through the priesthood. “Now this king [Pharaoh] of Egypt was a descendant from the loins of Ham, and was a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites by birth.

“From this descendant sprang all the Egyptians, and thus the blood of the Canaanites was preserved in the land. Pharaoh being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign, even in the reign of Adam, and also of Noah his father, who blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him as pertaining to the priesthood” (Book of Abraham 1:21, 22, 26).



  1. It is a wonder that a similarly offensive and condescending piece of tripe has not been written about “The Homosexual Question” or “The Gender Role Question” or “The Feminist Question”. I wonder how we will look back on the things written today to justify the unresolved theological issues confronting us.

    Why don’t we just petition the Lord for more clear answers through revelation (not that imposter substitute “inspiration”) for these problems? Isn’t that what revelation is for?

    Comment by Michael — March 30, 2011 @ 7:08 am

  2. I don’t really want to get into the specific arguments of the issues here, but in general, we are here to figure out the right answers with what we have. We will sometimes get it wrong but if getting it wrong wasn’t allowed that what would be the point of mortality? The Lord will set us straight from time to time and on his time table. But if we ran for his direct guidance for every hard question, I think that misses the point.

    Church History has several examples of leaders making the wrong choice with sometimes disasterous consequences. But that is what mortality is for.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — March 30, 2011 @ 9:09 am

  3. Bruce, if we apply your train of thought to all issues, the restoration would never have happened and the flow of Gospel light from Brother Joseph’s numerous questions would never have been ours to enjoy.

    Why is it OK for him to have received so much enlightenment on what could be considered “trivial” issues such as Abraham’s and David’s many wives or the appropriateness of tobacco compared to the more weighty matters we currently face and which are impacting the rising generation of Saints?

    For that matter, why would we not all be Catholics since the Reformation was likewise a result of questioning and, some might argue, revelation to Luther and Calvin?

    I would also think that those pure and righteous black Latter-day Saints that were denied the blessings of the Temple and the Priesthood during their lifetime due to Brother Brigham’s “wrong choice” may be inclined to disagree with you on it being just part of mortality.

    Comment by Michael — March 30, 2011 @ 9:28 am

  4. These are hard questions, and whenever I post something like this *very* *old* *outdated* lesson, I know there’s a risk of the kind of comments I don’t like to host at Keepa. Still, I think it’s worthwhile to look at what used to be taught, both to remind us of how far we have come in some cases, and to know the limits of what was really taught so that we avoid exaggeration in the other direction by claiming that the past was even worse than it actually was.

    While it is “bloggernacle wisdom” to lay the whole issue of Mormon shortcomings with regard to race solely at the feet of Brigham Young’s supposed racism, and to claim that all difficulties with plural marriage can be traced directly to Joseph Smith’s supposed appetites, NEITHER OF THOSE CONCLUSIONS ARE WELCOME HERE. They are not satisfactorily demonstrated so far as I am concerned; they run counter to several things I do believe about both men; and I won’t tolerate them being presented as if they are givens.

    Please do not use them as bludgeons to beat up on other commenters.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 30, 2011 @ 9:43 am

  5. Hmmm. I found the first half of the lesson vaguely sympathetic …and then the last half of the article quotes one of the most rabid white supremacists of the age.

    The article was chock-full of other non-sequiters, like

    the transportation of hundreds of thousands of black men from their home in Africa to the land of freedom.

    Umm, it wasn’t a land of freedom for them.

    Today, we’re about as far separated from WWII as this lesson was from the Civil War. It would have been interesting to listen to the class discussion this lesson generated. Or not. Which may be why the current lesson manuals don’t include the titles listed by Michael in comment #1.

    Comment by Clark — March 30, 2011 @ 9:47 am

  6. Ardis, I apologize if it seemed I was laying them entirely at Brother Brigham’s feet. I understand that it is a much more complex issue.

    And I was not trying to bludgeon; really I wasn’t. As an active gay LDS man living the law of celibacy, these type of posts always cut like a knife for me due to the commandment I have from our Prophet and Apostles to not love anyone during my mortal sojourn.

    I am frustrated that so many people find it easy to justify why we don’t seek for revelation on the tough issues of our day when they did so readily in early times of the Church.


    Comment by Michael — March 30, 2011 @ 11:31 am

  7. And I apologize for being so harsh, Michael. I think I was in part reacting to what I expected to follow, based on other ‘nacle discussions, if other commenters picked up your lead. It wasn’t fair for me to snap at you for other people’s as-yet-unmade comments. Sorry.

    I’ve been reading through the latest Joseph Smith Papers volume, looking at the first printings of some favorite Doctrine and Covenants sections, and trying to imagine what it would have been like to have been part of that first generation, where revelations seemed to come so fast and so easy. I’m no doubt romanticizing those days — they certainly didn’t have it easy in many ways, did they? — but the feeling that you could ask and receive in such clear and direct ways had to have been … I can’t even find a word to describe what it must have been.

    [P.S.: I tried to write to you directly, but the email bounced.]

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 30, 2011 @ 11:50 am

  8. I’m reminded after reading this of the New Testament statements by the Savior, “Hearing, they hear not; seeing, they see not”. The overall tone of this is a combination of regrets for the mistreatment and denial of rights to blacks, yet still a deep seated certainty that they were still an inferior race. I find the statements on interracial marriage particularly repugnant, but not surprising given that this time frame may have been the zenith of folk doctrine regarding the place of blacks in the church.

    Michael, I understand and sympathize with your situation, and hope you can continue to find a place in the church. I know we’ve made progress on the issue of race in the church; but even there we are still struggling in some ways. I’m not sure where all the issues you raise will end up, but what I am sure of is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone, and so is the Church. We are better off with you in it, than out of it. But I know that doesn’t lessen the struggle you face, so stay and help us work this out. Thanks for your comments.

    We have a need to face the problems of our past, and learn from them. I appreciate that Ardis shared this particularly difficult article from this series. It is hard reading, but we need to face hard things if we are to progress, both individually and as a church. We still have much to learn.

    Comment by kevinf — March 30, 2011 @ 12:38 pm

  9. Wow. Just wow.

    I can’t say that i’m surprised, given that i saw a lot of this sort of thing much more recently growing up in a still-quite-Southern region of a border state. You always hope for better from your own religion, though, you know?

    Anyway, a few items that i thought were interesting:

    →I was, like Clark, struck by how the tone of the piece shifted from the beginning to the end.
    →I found it interesting that the “negro question” was pointed to as a (the?) primary source of friction leading to the Civil War, but that how to deal with it was painted as being essentially simply a North vs. South thing. I expect that nowadays, but i would have thought 1917 would have been close enough in time to it that there’d have been more nuance than just painting it as a regional thing (giving at least a very brief nod nod to e.g., the role of the antebellum northern Democrats, slaveholding in New York, or somesuch). Maybe geographical distance had the same effect then as temporal distance has now?
    →I find it interesting that the author of this piece seems to never have heard of people of African descent passing for white—it appears that he held pretty firmly to the “one drop” rule leading to unmistakable signs of Africanness.
    →The recognition of contemporary Northern racism was interesting, and i think actually a well-written segment.
    →The bit in the “economic phase” section that alluded to the curse of Cain idea was phrased more strongly than i’ve seen it in Mormon stuff before—it actually claimed that the Deluge was the result of multiracial children, if i read it correctly. That’s pretty stunning.
    →I still don’t get how Abraham 1:21ff. says anything about social perceptions of the meaning of skin color. But that’s apparently just me, i guess.
    →And finally, if any of my students submitted a paper that said “here are opposing views” and then quoted two sources at length without any real comment, well, i’d fail that paper based on the sheer laziness that was in evidence.

    Comment by David B — March 30, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

  10. Michael,
    The way we sought, received, and dealt with revelation has certainly changed since the early “heady” days of the restoration. There was so much excitement about what Joseph was receiving it is hard to describe it adequately. I think there was enough revealed for us to have taken a different path regarding blacks and the priesthood. Thankfully we have changed course through what I understand was more like inspiration rather than revelation. But that doesn’t change its source.

    I recognize that there are still many groups of people who are not entirely welcome in the church today. I could make a list, but I would undoubtedly forget someone. How we have taught our lessons in the past (of which the OP is a good example) does create less tolerance than it should. We have improved and we can continue to do better. I believe it should not take a revelation to do so, but I understand why you believe it would.

    I acknowledge the difficulty of your position, and I wish there were a way I could personally make you feel more welcome. I know members who would not and I never want to be on the wrong side of that line. And I am willing to say that openly and without the anonymity of a pseudonym. Kevin said it well. “We are better off with you than without you.”

    Comment by Bruce Crow — March 30, 2011 @ 3:34 pm

  11. I received a forwarded political email from a ward member today that reminded me that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

    We can get upset at articles like this (and it made me sad in many regards) but ideas like these are still pervasive in our society. It is less politically correct to state these things overtly now, but the racism involved in the forwarded email I received today was only half a centimeter deep. You barely had to read between the lines to interpret it as a diatribe against an African-American president and anyone involved in any way in the fight for worker’s rights. (Tangentially, I have noticed that people who tend to criticize labor unions and the history of labor unions generally know nothing about the subject. An online article or two does not suffice.)

    I know correlation has received a bad name in certain quarters, but at the very least it has had the merciful effect of taking lessons like this out of our Sunday instruction and has relegated it to the email forward.

    And hopefully someday we will be a Christian people and a Zion people and will not even say these things in private or in email forwards.

    Comment by Researcher — March 30, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

  12. It’s striking how pessimistic Dr. Tanner’s views were about the future of race relations and society in general. While the civil rights movement wasn’t without social upheval and violence, few of the dire consequences and ugly possibilities that Dr. Tanner foresaw were realized. Comparing Dr. Tanner’s views of a “negro question” without answers to Dr. King’s “dream” of equality, should teach us that optimism, hope, and tolerance is the approach we should take to solve social problems that divide us.

    Comment by Seldom — March 30, 2011 @ 5:42 pm

  13. Keep in mind that these lessons were written at the end of World War I. There’s a serious streak of pessimism through the whole series — remember his fear that German submarine crews would go rogue and operate as pirates long after the war ended? (I’m not disagreeing with you at all, Seldom, in either Dr. Tanner’s pessimism or your recommendation for optimism, just trying to throw Dr. Tanner a shred of understanding in case he wasn’t this pessimistic at other times in his life.)

    Thanks for some great comments, all.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 30, 2011 @ 5:58 pm

  14. I found the lesson to be both awful and enlightening. Awful because it assumes many things that are just so wrong; enlightening to the extent it sheds light on the societal norms of the time. Heck — my own (living) grandparents were born before this lesson was published!

    Comment by David Y. — March 30, 2011 @ 7:22 pm

  15. I apologize for dropping out of the discussion. I was on a plane this evening traveling at speeds they could only dream of when the lesson above was written. I would like to thank Ardis and everyone for the support and kind words.

    As I quickly approach age 50 I do look back on how far we have come in so many areas. However, like many of you, I think it would have been wonderful to have been around in those exciting early years when the heavens were pouring forth new gospel light.

    Ardis, you need to drop the “at” from my email address and it will work. Thanks for reaching out.

    Comment by Michael — March 30, 2011 @ 10:06 pm