Part 2 of a 4-part Black History Month series titled: The Howe Report
In Their Own Words
One thing readers should understand about me: I really enjoy letting primary sources ‘speak’ for themselves. That instant connection with the past is thrilling and has always been more exciting to me than someone else telling me about those sources. Putting aside my nerd-love for a moment, the benefit of primary sources is that they help draw a better picture of what life might have been like at that time. We look at the past through the lens of the 21st century, which adds layers and layers of context to our understanding of the past. The same will be true for those in the 23rd century looking at us. The primary sources can almost transport you back and provide a greater understanding of the period. After all, that’s our purpose here at the St. Catharines Museum: to collect, preserve, and share our City’s material culture.
So, like in previous Black History Month series, we’re going to use this blog post to share some of the transcripts recorded by Howe during the Commission Interviews.
If you haven’t read the first post in The Howe Report series, please go back and read it now. The prejudicial tone of the period is prevalent in these interviews and it’s important that we’re on the same page. It’s interesting too that Howe’s report cites Benjamin Drew’s interviews with Freedom Seekers who were staying in St. Catharines in 1853. If you’d like to read our blog series covering Benjamin Drew’s The Refugee, you can find it here.
In 1863, the United States Congress commissioned Samuel G. Howe to study and report on the condition of refugee slaves in Canada West (Ontario). His report, “The Refugees from Slavery in Canada West Report to the Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission” was published in 1864 and details the results of inquiries and interviews and observations. Howe interviewed many local Black and White people including Dr. Theophilus Mack (St. Catharines’ first doctor) and Eleazer Stephenson (owner of salt-spring tourist hotel, the Stephenson House). The full interviews weren’t published by Howe, but instead were mostly used as evidence in his report. Howe’s conclusions differ somewhat from those he interviewed.
It’s difficult to know what the conversations were between Howe and the interviewees since the transcripts are only of their testimony – not full conversations. However, the Commission was struck with the express purpose of surveying the physical condition of Freedom Seekers in the North, their intermarriage with white people, and their success after emancipation. Keep those discussion topics in mind as you read through the testimony.
Testimony of George Ross, Head Waiter at the Stephenson House
I came from Hagerstown, MLD, and have been here twelve or thirteen years. I had a pretty hard time for three years, when I worked on a farm, but principally I was a waiter and driver. I came away because I was standing in fear of being separated from my wife and children. That was one of the principal reasons of my coming away; otherwise I don’t know as I would have bothered my head about doming away, for I had lived pretty well, say for the last 25 years. I got my family all away. I farmed for about 18 months in Pennsylvania, and since that, I have been waiting all the time. I had religious privileges at the Smiths just the same as here. Sundays, I had my regular work just the same as I have here, and used to go to church three times a day on Sunday and in the week if I chose to go. I have had three bosses. The last was a very nice man and very much of a gentleman. He never laid the weight of his hand on me to whip me. After I got to be a man grown, I knew how to behave myself and how to work, and of course there was no call to whip me.
I have seen hundreds of cases where families were separated. I have seen them in droves 150-200 together – men, women, and children – linked side by side. There used to be two drivers to a drove, one driver in front and one behind. I have seen them from eight or nine years old up to 45 and 50; and when the mothers were sold, I have seen young babes, torn from the cradle in these gangs. I have seen this, many and many a time, and heard them cry fit to break their hearts.
I had always heard that Canada was a very cold country, that nobody could live in but those brought up in it; but I had come to the conclusion that if any human being could live in a cold country, I could live there. I just considered that a man must clothe himself according to the weather – I had sense enough for that; and so when I came to Canada, which was in cold weather, I clothed myself very well, and I have always got [sic] as well as I could in Hagerstown, MD. Many were the stories that we were told to terrify men from going north. There were tales that half their labor – no matter how much – would go to the Queen, and the other half they would have to live on, and that they would abuse you and knock you about, and all that kind of thing. They used to say that even in Pennsylvania and New York they would sell us in a roundabout way to New Orleans. But I found all that to the contrary. In fact, I don’t think a great many believed those stories, for we knew they were told to keep us there. I was never down south. I was a little way in Virginia, but not far. Slavery is harder there than in Maryland. They have larger plantations and more servants, and they seem to be more severe. Down in Prince Georges County, MD, they are a little harder than they are in the upper part of the State. If I had my choice, I would rather live in Maryland than in Virginia. I hope they will all be free there. I should like to go down there again for I have two sisters living there somewhere.
I was 46 years old the 4th of last April. I have been treated first-rate since I have been in Canada. I can’t complain at all, and I daren’t say I would rather go back there to live, if all was right there. It always seemed I would get work wherever I went. I suppose it must be because I was steady and did the work good.
I don’t know as I have known any particular instances where slaves were raised for the purpose of selling them; but I have been on a farm where they had 30 or 40 colored people, and as the younger growed up, they sold off the older; so I rather think by that it was done pretty near for that purpose. Sometimes, when they could get good bargains, they would sell the young just the same. I have often heard of slaves being kept for the purpose of breeding but I have never seen it. That may be done down in Virginia and the other foreign States perhaps.
There was a great desire among slaves to get away. All they wanted was the [sic] The great difficulty is to get the families off. A man can get off a great deal easier than a woman. Some say if they can’t get their families off, they won’t go themselves; if they are to be sold, they will be sold with them. I was persuaded to go away and leave mine, supposing I could not get them away; but I studied the [sic] work and got them away very well indeed. Often the argument is used to the slaves that they have been treated well, and it would not be fair for them to go away. There are some of the slaves, who are not exactly overseers, but they go forward and the others follow them. For instance, they measure the grain and barrel the flour, and their masters send them to mill and give them a little money and tell them, “you are a good boy and we will give you enough to eat and drink, and clothe you pretty well, and pay your doctor’s bill, and see what little trouble you have, and you should make yourself satisfied”. Some of them if they want a horse and carriage can have it, and consequently they make themselves satisfied, and say they can’t do better. Undoubtedly, they keep others from going, by saying “You see what privileges we have, and if you do as well as we do, your master will treat you well, and here is a house for you.” And of course that will have an influence upon others. Of course, there are some who are smarter than the others, who can read and write some, and of course their influence will bear upon the others.
The religious feeling is used to induce the slaves to feel that they owe a duty to their masters and mistresses more than to their great maker above. Certain parts of the Scripture about obeying masters and mistresses, they quote very much but not in the right light.
I have known instances where clergymen owned slaves – Methodist preachers and Presbyterian preachers, I believe. We had one in our place that owned seven or eight, and also sold them. I have often known cases where slaves were sold for debt. My boss was a specimen. He owned several large brick houses and so on and a great house in New Orleans, but he got in debt, so that eight of us were levied on and put in jail. We were kept in jail three or four months, to give him a chance to raise the money to redeem us. Then he redeemed us and got us out, but in short term he got much in debt again that we were put in jail again, and the last time we were all sold. But the gentleman went round to the gentlemen in town, and got them to bid for us and got the Sheriff not to let any slave-driver bid. They did bid some, but the town gentlemen bid over them, and we were knocked down to them, and so saved in the town. The gentlemen who brought me let my boss have me, and so I got back in a few months.
We were treated first rate in jail – could not have been treated better. We were in confinement about a month, after. The jailers seeing, we were trusty servants let us out to wait on tables, sweep the yard, and so on. I was worried, she said “You may go home every night at 7 o’clock and come back at 7 in the morning”, and so I did. The other fellows drove the jailer’s wife all over town, and walked round the streets smoking cigars, and came back to the jail to sleep nights. I could not have been sold, you may be sure I would not have left, because I could not expect to be any better off in slavery. I did not have to work as hard as I do now, and I dressed equally well, if not better; and if I wanted a horse and carriage to go out into the country or anywhere, I could have it. Now after coming to a free country, and seeing the privileges I have, by acting decently, you may depend upon it I would stay there any time. I would not care what privileges I had, or how well I was treated; I would not stay there under any consideration, because I know how good freedom is. I know that if a man will work and behave himself and respect yourself, other people will respect him. He will always get work, and it is a pleasure to a man to work for his own living and pay his own way through the world. I know what it is to be a man – that is the idea exactly. I never was blessed with the privileges of education myself, though my children read and write very well.Testimony of George Brown
Testimony of C.P. Camp, Town Clerk and Treasurer
The colored people here get on very poorly. They steal our sheep, our chickens, and everything else. They are a curse to any country. I wish they were all back South, for my part. They are a lazy set, especially the young men. We have to support them while they live, and bury them when they die. We have some Irish laborers; I don’t know that the colored people are any worse than the Irish are. The population of St. Catharines is 7007. The Government census was all wrong. They made the population 6284; but we took the census a year ago, and made it 7007.Testimony of C.P. Camp
Testimony of Mrs. Brown
The colored people are not doing much here. Since I have been here, there has been considerable improvement. I have been here fifteen years, and have paid taxes all the time. I came from New York State. I am Alabamian. My husband is a Marylander. The climate here is about the same as where I came from, but Southern people of course find it different. I don’t find the winters any longer than they were at home. When I was on the Mohawk, the winters were as long as they are here. I am healthy and healthier, here than I was at home. I don’t know much about the colored people here. I never go among them and don’t know anything about them. You know as much about them as I do. They all live just in a heap among themselves, and I never go there. They are in a free country, and can live decently if they like. I have got one boy here – my daughter’s child. I have not sent him to school much, for I don’t think we shall stop here long. I think of going to Montreal or the States. They will have him go to the Presbyterian Sunday school, and I let him go.
A good many of the colored people own their own houses and have owned them ever since I came here. When they came here, of course they were destitute, and had nothing. Most of them came from the Slave States. There are some here who are doing very well. The reason they do not get so much property as the Irish is because the Irish will live on nothing, like a dog. They live like pigs and worse than pigs. The colored people can’t live like the Irish, on potatoes and salt. They want something to eat, if they have to work. An Irishmen will take potatoes and salt, and a cup of milk and say nothing about it, but as a people, we are used to living different from that, and can’t do it. The Irish will get along anywhere. In the winter time, you will see Irish children, even of people pretty well-to-do who wear shoes only on Sunday; and women of any age will go around the house with their bare feet all day, and will even go out into the garden to get a cabbage or something without shoes or stockings; and that you know, would kill anybody else. The colored people are capable of doing anything that they have a chance to do. All we want is good schools for the children and capital enough to give them good trades. I [sic] my boy Niall be educated as well as anybody, if it costs the last cent I ever make. I mean to make something of him, and I will send him off too. If the colored people are able to take care of themselves, they will. There are more men who won’t take care of themselves, go where they will. My husband is 80 years old, and he can work and take of himself and me too, and of course I can take care of myself and him too, if he is sick. My husband was an officer’s servant at the time Baltimore was taken about 1812. My husband says he would go back if freedom was established, for he doesn’t like Canada, no way. I am sure I don’t and never did. I would have gone back with my husband to Maryland, if it had been a free state, but it never has been, but when it is free, I tell you I will go back and he will go back. He has some children there, and he wants to go back. That he calls “home” though he has been here 22 years.
I find more prejudice here than I did in New York State. When I was at home, I could go anywhere; but here, my goodness! You get an insult on every side. The colored people have their rights before the law; that is the only thing that has kept me here. The law will protect my husband; I was always free. There is great prejudice here. This is a regular ‘Yankee’ place. You can just tell your people that every person can get along here if he will only work for it. I have to work myself, like sixty. My first husband was a Massachusetts man. His name was James W. Robinson. The colored ministers here are not very intelligent. I wonder at their being put over a flock; they can’t enlighten them much.Testimony of Mrs. Brown
Testimony of James Brown
In the winter our roll numbers 120 or 130; in summer, 70 or 80. We have had an average attendance, in winter of 110. I have taught white children, and I don’t’ think that the colored children attend as regularly as the white. In capacity, they are very fair. I find that to differ, according to the color. What we consider as the regular Negro is very opaque, but the lighter colored are very smart. Take them as a whole, I don’t find much different between them and white children. I perceive a very offensive odor from them. I don’t know that there is any different, in that respect, between children and adults. Our school in summer averages about 40. We are supplied with just the same wraps and apparatus that the white schools are. The great difficulty I have to contend against is want of books. The Government does not give us books. It expects the children to find them. I went to the Trustees four or five years ago, and got a number of books. If it had not been for those books, I don’t know what I would have done. It was actually teaching by word of mouth. The parents could not afford to [sic] the books. They are very poor set here. I have some scholars pretty well advanced in Geometry and Algebra. Some of the lads are very quick.Testimony of James Brown
Testimony of Dr. Theophilus Mack
My first acquaintance with the colored people was at Amherstburg, where my father was a minister of the Church of England. It strikes me that the mixed races are the most unhealthy, and the more blacks the least so. The disease they suffer most from is pulmonary-more than general tubercular, and where there is not real tubercular affection of the lungs, there are bronchitis and pulmonary affections. I have the idea that they die out when mixed, and that this climate will completely efface them. I think the pure blacks will live. I have come to this conclusion, not from any statistics but from personal observation. I know A, B, and C, who are mulattoes and they are unhealthy; and I know pure blacks, who do not suffer from disease, and recover from the small pox and skin disease and yellow fever which are very fatal to mulattoes. I think there is a great deal of [sic] developed in the mixed race, produced by change of climate. It is certain death to bring them here. I know it is so. That has been constantly observed among the profession. We see it here very plainly. They come here, and the first winter they will be laid up. They tell me they were never sick before.
Their worse [sic] crime is rape of the white women. It is most extraordinary. They don’t increase much in this country – I mean, the mixed race. The pure backs are the healthiest, and get on the best, and have the best character in every way. I think the children of mulattoes are not so easily raised as white or black children. They are very sickly children, everyway. I think they are not quite so fruitful here as they are in the South, from their own accounts. Their [sic] is not near so great as that of the Irish, and yet [sic] is not difficult with them. It is very extraordinary, that there is no class of women that has so many difficult labors as Irish women, who are noted for the ease with which they get through. I think it is a consequence of their laborious life, and their habit of drinking. They can get whiskey here very freely. I don’t know any mulattos family that has [sic] without any [sic] for several generations. My conviction is that they die out. They grow shorter and shorter lives until at last they don’t reach adult age. There seems to be a downright limit to the race in a Northern climate. Dr. Wilson of Toronto and I had a very interesting conversation upon this very subject at one time. He has paid a great deal of attention to the races of men.
I think the blacks are not a vicious race, except that disposition to mingle with the whites; that is their awkwardness is very strong. If there is anything else, it is rather negative. They are utterly insolent. It is a want of [sic]; it is a physical incapacity for work; he is really unfit for it in cold weather and warm weather his natural luxuriousness leads him to want to enjoy himself. The Irish are trying to crowd them out of the light work and are doing it as fast as they can. The Irish are, upon the whole, where once they break away from their brutalizing habits, more bright and clever than the Negroes. In New York you will see twenty Irish waiters where you used to see one ten years ago, and that, I think is going to be another element of the opposition between these two races. They don’t’ make as quick and active waiters, but I think you can rely upon them better – they will do more work. A great many of their faults must be attributed to their habits as slaves. Those you must eliminate in passing a judgement in regard to them; because if you make a man a slave you make him deceptive and everything else. Generally, they do access a little property. The steady and industrious among them acquire a little property. There must be nearly a hundred of them who pay taxes on real estate. They came here where there is little employment, they came into direct competition with the Irish, and are not favoured, and if they have acquired any real estate (which is an expensive thing to acquire) in 10, 12, or 15 years – and they have not generally been here longer than that – it speaks very well for them.
In regard to their general character of morality, taking into account their position in life and their temptations, I think they are a little better than the Irish. Really I don’t know that I ought to say so but I am inclined to think so. I suppose the Irish may be their superiors in regard to chastity. I think the Irish are very much their superiors in intellect. You may improve the Irishman up to anything; but on the other hand, the Irish have, along with that capacity – as we know all [sic] are powerful for good as well as for evil – furious vices of all kinds – murder, assault, drunkenness, and everything, except want of chastity. The Irish man and woman are more chaste, I think, than others. I think the chastity of the Negro women is very low. Nothing can be worse except that of the squaw. The squaw has no idea of it all, apparently. As a class of inhabitants, I don’t think you would find more vice among the colored people than among any others. The prejudice against them is dreadful; then they have this corruption to [sic].
What I have said to you I have often talked over with my brethren of the profession. We often compare notes, and we agree that the fact stares us in the face, that it is death to the race to come here and mingle with the white. There is no doubt they will go home if freedom is established there. I shall never forget the first negro I had anything to do with. He had just come, poor creature, from South Carolina. It was in the winter and my father sent him up into the woods to chop and there I found him, with a big fire on each side of him. He had chopped about a quarter of a cord in the course of the day. He couldn’t stand it evidently.Testimony of Dr. Theophilus Mack
In our next blog post, I’ll look at some of the interviews that Benjamin Drew conducted for his book The Refugee and compare it to the Howe Report and the transcripts to examine the condition of the Freedom Seekers over a period of 10 years (1853-1863).
With special thanks to Donna Ford for transcribing the Howe Commission Testimony. The Transcriptions are available upon request at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.
Adrian Petry is a public historian and Visitor Services Coordinator at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.