What part did Black Americans do in the Spanish-American War?

Should the question be asked “how did the American Negroes act in the Spanish-American war?” the foregoing brief account of their conduct would furnish a satisfactory answer to any fair mind. In testimony of their valiant conduct we have the evidence first, of competent eye witnesses; second, of men of the white race; and third, not only white race, but men of the Southern white race, in America, whose antipathy to the Negro “with a gun” is well known, it being related of the great George Washington, who, withal, was a slave owner, but mild in his views as to the harshness of that system–that on his dying bed he called out to his good wife: “Martha, Martha, let me charge you, dear, never to trust a ‘nigger’ with a gun.” Again we have the testimony of men high in authority, competent to judge, and whose evidence ought to be received. Such men as General Joseph Wheeler, Colonel Roosevelt, General Miles, President McKinley. If on the testimony of such witnesses as these we have not “established our case,” there must be something wrong with the jury. A good case has been established, however, for the colored soldier, out of the mouth of many witnesses. The colored troopers just did so well that praise could not be withheld from them even by those whose education and training had bred in them prejudice against Negroes. It can no longer be doubted that the Negro soldier will fight. In fact such has been their record in past wars that no scruples should have been entertained on this point, but the (late) war was a fresh test, the result of which should be enough to convince the most incredulous “Doubting Thomases.”

The greater portion of the American people have confidence in the Negro soldier. This confidence is not misplaced–the American government can, in the South, organize an army of Negro soldiers that will defy the combined forces of any nation of Europe. The Negro can fight in any climate, and does not succumb to the hardships of camp life. He makes a model soldier and is well nigh invincible.
The Negro race has a right to be proud of the achievements of the colored troopers in the late Spanish-American war. They were the representatives of the whole race in that conflict; had they failed it would have been a calamity charged up to the whole race. The race’s enemies would have used it with great effect. They did not fail, but did their duty nobly–a thousand hurrahs for the colored troopers of the Spanish-American war!

In considering their successful achievements, however, it is well to remember that there were some things the Negro had to forget while facing Spanish bullets. The Negro soldier in bracing himself for that conflict must needs forget the cruelties that daily go on against his brethren under that same flag he faces death to defend; he must forget that when he returns to his own land he will be met not as a citizen, but as a serf in that part of it, at least, where the majority of his people live; he must forget that if he wishes to visit his aged parents who may perhaps live in some of the Southern States, he must go in a “Jim Crow” car; and if he wants a meal on the way, he could only get it in the kitchen, as to insist on having it in the dining room with other travelers, would subject him to mob violence; he must forget that the flag he fought to defend in Cuba does not protect him nor his family at home; he must forget the murder of Frazier B. Baker, who was shot down in cold blood, together with his infant babe in its mother’s arms, and the mother and another child wounded, at Lake City, S.C, for no other offense than attempting to perform the duties of Postmaster at that place–a position given him by President McKinley; he must forget also the shooting of Loftin, the colored Postmaster at Hagansville, Ga., who was guilty of no crime, but being a Negro and holding, at that place, the Post office, a position given him by the government; he must forget the Wilmington MASSACRE in which some forty or fifty colored people were shot down by men who had organized to take the government of the city in charge by force of the Winchester–where two lawyers and a half dozen or more colored men of business, together with such of their white friends as were thought necessary to get rid of, were banished from the city by a mob, and their lives threatened in the event of their return–all because they were in the way as Republican voters-”talked too much” or did not halt when so ordered by some members of the mob; they must forget the three hundred Negroes who were the victims of mob violence in the United States during the year 1898; they must forget that the government they fought for in Cuba is powerless to correct these evils, and does not correct them.

Why the American Government does not Protect its Colored Citizens
Is due to the peculiar and complicated construction of the laws relating to States Rights. The power to punish for crimes against citizens of the different States is given by construction of the Constitution of the United States to the courts of the several States. The Federal authorities have no jurisdiction unless the State has passed some law abridging the rights of citizens, or the State government through its authorized agents is unable to protect its citizens, and has called on the national government for aid to that end, or some United States official is molested in the discharge of his duty. Under this subtle construction of the Constitution a citizen who lives in a State whose public opinion is hostile becomes a victim of whatever prejudice prevails, and, although the laws may in the letter, afford ample protection, yet those who are to execute them rarely do so in the face of a hostile public sentiment; and thus the Negroes who live in hostile communities become the victims of public sentiment. Juries may be drawn, and trials may be had, but the juries are usually white, and are also influenced in their verdicts by that sentiment which declares that “this is a white man’s government,” and a mistrial follows. In many instances the juries are willing to do justice, but they can feel the pressure from the outside, and in some instance the jurors chosen to try the cases were members of the mob, as in the case of the coroner’s jury at Lake City.

It is the duty of a State Governor, when he finds public sentiment dominating the courts and obstructing justice, to interfere, and in case he cannot succeed with the sheriff and posse comitatus, then to invoke National aid. But this step has never yet been taken by any Governor of the States in the interest of Negro citizenship. Some of the State Governors have made some demonstration by way of threats of enforcing the law against those who organize mobs and take the law into their own hands; and some of the mob murderers have been brought to trial, which in most cases, has resulted in an acquittal for the reason that juries have as aforestated, chosen to obey public sentiment, which is not in favor of punishing white men for lynching Negroes, rather than obey the law; and cases against the election laws and for molesting United States officials have to be tried in the district where these offences occur, and the juries being in sympathy with the criminals, usually acquit, or there is a mistrial because they cannot all agree.

That mobocracy is supreme in many parts of the Union is no longer a mooted question. It is a fact; and one that forebodes serious consequences, not only to the Negro but to any class of citizens who may happen to come into disfavor with some other class.

What The Negro Should do under such circumstances must be left to the discretion of the individuals concerned. Some advise emigration, but that is impracticable, en masse, unless some suitable place could be found where any considerable number might go, and not fare worse. The colored people will eventually leave those places where they are maltreated, but “whether it is better to suffer the ills we now bear than flee to those we know not of,” is the question. The prevailing sentiment among the masses seems to be to remain for the present, where they are, and through wise action, and appeals to the Court of Enlightened Christian Sentiment, try to disarm the mob. There is no doubt a class of white citizens who regret such occurrences, and from their natural horror of bloodshed, and looking to the welfare and reputation of the communities in which such outrages occur, and feeling that withal the Negro makes a good domestic and farm hand, will, and do counsel against mob violence. In many places where mobs have occurred such white citizens have been invaluable aids in saving the lives of Negroes from mob violence; and trusting that these friends will increase and keep up their good work the Negro has seldom ever left the scene of mob violence in any considerable numbers, the home ties being strong, and he instinctively loves the scene of his birth. He loves the white men who were boys with him, whose faces he has smiled in from infancy, and he would rather not sever those friendly ties. A touching incident is related in reference to a colored man in a certain town where a mob was murdering Negroes right and left, who came to the door of his place of business, and seeing the face of a young white man whom he had known from his youth, asked protection home to his wife and five children; the reply came with an oath, “Get back into that house or I will put a bullet into you.” The day before this these two men had been “good friends,” had “exchanged cigars”-but the orders of the mob were stronger in this instance than the ties of long years of close friendship. Another instance, though, will show how the mob could not control the ties of friendship of the white for the black. It was the case of a colored man who was blacklisted by a mob in a certain city, and fled to the home of a neighboring white friend who kept him in his own house for several days until escape was possible, and in the meantime, summoned his white neighbors to guard the black man’s family-threatening to shoot down the first member of the mob who should enter the gate, because, as he said, “you have no right to frighten that woman and her children to death.” Such acts as this assures to the Negroes in places where feeling runs against them that perhaps they may be fortunate enough to escape the violence of this terrible race hatred that is now running riot in this country. In this connection it is well to remark that kindness will win in the long run with the Negro Race, and make them the white man’s friend. Georgia and those States where Negroes are being burned are sowing to the wind and will ere long reap the whirlwind in the matter of race hatred. Criminal assaults were not characteristic of the Negro in the days of slavery, because as a rule there was friendship between master and slave-the slave was too fond of his master’s family but to do otherwise than protect it; but the situation is changed-instead of kindness the Negro sees nothing but rebuff on every hand; he feels himself a hated and despised race without country or protection anywhere, and the brute-spirit rises in those, who, by their make-up and training, cannot keep it down-then follows murder, outrage, rape. It is true that only a few do these things, but those few are the natural products of the Southern system of oppression and the wonder is, when the question is viewed philosophically, that there are so few. The conclusion here reached is that Georgia will not get rid of her brutes by burning them and taking the charred embers home as relics, but rather by treating her Negro population with more kindness and showing them that there is some hope for Negro citizenship in that State. The Negroes know that white men have been known to rape colored girls, but that never has there been a suggestion of lynching or burning for that, and they feel despondent, for they know the courts are useless in such cases, and this jug-handle enforcement of lynch law is breeding its own bad fruits on the Negro race as well as making more brutal the whites. My advice, then, to our white friends is to try kindness as a remedy for rape in the South, and I am convinced of the force of this remedy from what I know of the occurrence of assaults and murders in those States where the Negroes are made to feel that they are citizens and are at home.

What Courage! What an Example of Faithfulness to Duty
Did the colored troopers exhibit in forgetting all these shortcomings to themselves and race of their own government when they made those daring charges on San Juan and El Caney!! They were possessed with large hearts and sublime courage. How they fought under such circumstances, none but a divine tongue can answer. It was a miracle, and was performed, no doubt, that good might come to the race in the shape of the testimonials given them as appears heretofore in this book. Their deeds must live in history as an honor to the Negro Race. Let them be taught to the children. Let it be said that the Negro soldier did his duty under the flag, whether that flag protects him or not. The white soldier fought under no such sad reflections–he did not, after a hard-fought battle, lie in the trenches at night and dream of his aged mother and father being run out of their little home into the wintry blasts by a mob who sought to “string them up” for circulating literature relating to the party of Wm. McKinley–the President of the United States–this was the colored soldiers’ dream, but he swore to protect the flag and he did it. The colored soldier has been faithful to his trust; let others be the same. If Negroes who have other trusts to perform, do their duty as well as the colored soldiers, there will be many revisions in the scale of public sentiment regarding the Negro Race in America–many arguments will be overthrown and the heyday towards Negro citizenship will begin to dawn–there are other battles than those of the militia.

The Solution of the Problem is Mainly in the Race’s own Hands
They must climb up themselves with such assistance as they can get. The race has done well in thirty years of freedom, but it could have done better; banking on the progress already made the next thirty years will no doubt show greater improvement than the past–TIME, TIME, TIME, which some people seem to take so little into account, will be the great adjuster of all such problems in the future as it has been in the past. Many children of the white fathers of the present day will read the writing of their parents and wonder at their short-sightedness in attempting to fix the metes and bounds of the American Negro’s status. We feel reluctant to prophesy, but this much we do say, that fifty years from now will show a great change in the Negro’s condition in America, and many of those who now predict his calamity will be classed with the fools who said before the Negro was emancipated that they would all perish within ten years for lack of ability to feed and clothe themselves. The complaint now with many of those who oppose the Negro is not because he lacks ability, but rather because he uses too much and sometimes gets the situation that they want. This is pre-eminently so from a political standpoint and the reported arguments used to stir the poorer class of whites to rally against the Negroes in Wilmington during the campaign just before the late Massacre there in the fall of 1898, was a recital by impassioned orators of the fact that Negroes had pianos and servants in their houses, and lace curtains to their windows-this outburst being followed by the question, “How many of you white men can afford to have them?” So as to the problem of the Negro’s imbibing the traits of civilization, that point is settled by what he has already done, and the untold obstacles which are being constantly put in his way by those who fear his competition. The question then turns not so much on what shall be done with the Negro as upon What shall be done with the white men who are so filled with prejudice that neither law nor religion restrains their bloody hands when the Negro refuses to get into what he calls “his place,” which place is that of a menial; and often there seems no effort even to put the Negro in any particular place save the grave, as many of the lynchings and murders appear to be done either for the fun of shooting someone, or else with extermination in view. There is no attempt at a show of reason or right. The mob spirit is growing–prejudice is more intense. Formerly it was confined to the rabble, now it has taken hold of those of education, and standing. Red shirts have entered the pulpits, and it is a matter boasted of rather than condemned–the South is not the only scene of such outrages. Prejudice is not confined to one section, but is no doubt more intense in the Southern State, and more far-reaching in its effects, because it is there that the Negroes, by reason of the large numbers in proportion to the other inhabitants, come into political competition with the whites who revolt at the idea of Negro officers, whether they are elected by a majority of citizens or not. The whites seem bent on revolution to prevent the force and effect of Negro majorities. Whether public sentiment will continue to endorse these local revolutions is the question that can be answered only by time. Just so long as the Negro’s citizenship is written in the Constitution and he believes himself entitled to it, just so long will he seek to exercise it. The white man’s revolution will be needed every now and then to beat back the Negro’s aspirations with the Winchester. The Negro race loves progress, it is fond of seeing itself elevated, it loves office for the honor it brings and the emoluments thereof, just as other progressive races do. It is not effete, looking back to Confucius; it is looking forward; it does not think its best days have been in the past, but that they are yet to come in the future; it is a hopeful race, teachable race; a race that absorbs readily the arts and accomplishments of civilization; a race that has made progress in spite of mountains of obstacles; a race whose temperament defied the worst evils of slavery, both African and American; a race of great vitality, a race of the future, a race of destiny.

In closing this resume of this little work it is proper that I should warn the younger members of the race against despondency, and against the looseness of character and habits that is singularly consequential of a despondent spirit. Do not be discouraged, give up, and throw away brilliant intellects, because of seeming obstacles, but rather resolve to Be Something and Do Something in Spite of Obstacles.

“It was not by tossing feather balls into the air that the great Hercules gained his strength, but by hurling huge boulders from mountain tops ‘that his name became the synonym of manly strength.’ So the harder the struggle the greater the discipline and fitness. If we cannot reach success in one way, let us try another. ‘If the mountain will not come to Mahomet let Mahomet go to the mountain.’”

The South Is A Good Place For The Negro To Live, provided, however, the better class of citizens will rise up and demand that lynching’s and mobs shall cease, and that the officers of the law shall do their duty without prejudice. The only way to suppress mob violence is to make punishment for the leaders in it, sure and certain. The reason we have mobs is because the leaders of them know they will not be punished. The enforcement of the law against lynchers will break it up.

The white ministers should take up the cause of justice rather than endorse the red shirts, or carry a Winchester themselves. They should be the counselors of peace and not the advocates of bloodshed. Most of them, no doubt, do regret the terrible deeds committed by mobs on helpless and innocent people, but it is a question as to whether or not they would be suffered by public sentiment to “cry aloud” against them. It takes moral courage to face any evil, but it must be faced or dire consequences will follow of its own breeding. Our last word then, is an appeal to our Brothers in White, in the pulpit, that they should rally the people together for justice and; condemn mob violence. The Negroes do not ask social equality, but civil equality; let the false notions that confound civil rights with social rights be dispelled, and advocate the civil equality of all men, and the problem will be solved.

Edmund Burke says that “war never leaves where it found a nation.” applying this to the American nation with respect to the Negro it is to be hoped that the late war will leave a better feeling toward him, especially in view of the glorious record of the Negro soldiers who participated in that conflict.



MLA Source Citation:

Johnson, Edward A. History of Negro Soldiers in the Spanish-American War, and other items of Interest. 1899. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 29 August 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/military/black-americans-spanish-american-war.htm - Last updated on Mar 7th, 2013


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