Sunday, November 29, 2015

October 13, 1901: Letter to the Editor of The Saint Paul Globe


To the Editor of the Globe:

Your correspondent offers, in making this communication, as his excuse, the deep and intense interest manifested by the colored people of St. Paul in the case of Henry Summers, now under arrest in this city charged with being a fugitive from justice by the authorities of the state of Tennessee, as well as the unjust and unwarranted aspersion upon our sense of moral discrimination which is cast by the editorial of the St. Paul Pioneer Press in its issue of Saturday, Oct. 12, 1901, entitled "An Unpleasant Duty."

In said editorial it is made to appear to the good people of this state that the colored people have made a great ado and bustle over a condition of affairs in Tennessee that is purely imaginary, and that we ought to be ashamed of ourselves to have exhibited our sympathy for the alleged murder.

We are much surprised and pained to know that such a position is taken by the St. Paul Pioneer Press, when the known facts and the past bloody record of the state of Tennessee fully justify our people in their assumption that Summers will be given short shrift if he ever reaches that state. It is an assumption made by men in all phases and circumstances of life, that a state of affairs once shown to exist, still obtains, unless the contrary appears. In the first place, many of us who fear for Summers, are former citizens of Tennessee, and our experience alone of the summary methods of dealing in that unhappy state with negroes accused of crime, especially in remote localities like Bolivar, Hardeman county, lead us to believe, with a conviction amounting to a moral certainty, that this man will be illegally punished. Some of us have seen with our own eyes negro men and women mobbed and brutally beaten in that state, killed and otherwise ill-treated solely because in some way or other they had managed to come in opposition to some white person, and the authorities of the law stand idly by, aye, even participate in the evil deeds. We don't say these things because we wish to calumniate our native state, but because these things are true. None of us can believe that Summers, who is accused of splitting a white man's head open with an ax, will be allowed a chance to escape by way of the courts of law. Oh, no. The spirit of the old law, that a negro who struck a white man should be punished with death, still survives, and animates the descendants of its authors.

The lynching of negroes is not common in Tennessee, says your apologist for the governor's decision. My God! What constitutes his idea of common? Eight lynchings this year, one per month, and one of them a woman (for theft)! One hundred and sixty-nine in the past sixteen years! I refer you to the statistics kept by the Chicago Tribune, and published in its issue dated Sept. 1, 1901. I have only to turn the pages of the Pioneer Press of the last two weeks to cite cases of brutal and unprovoked mob violence upon unarmed and defenseless blacks, and nothing done about it. Yet Tennessee is an honorable state, and a model in this respect for all the old slave-holding states.

In the case of Summers it is said that the officers of the court and responsible authorities have joined in the assurance that Summers will not be lynched, but will have a fair and impartial trial. What do they expect? Will they confess their inability or their unwillingness to give this man, for whom they are so anxious, a fair and impartial trial? But assurance? Yes, assurance and nerve, but no insurance; no pledges do they offer, no, not even their honor. Nothing but a hurried petition, gotten up in a harum-scarum sort of a way. And why do they send a petition to our governor? Why do they not assume that Van Sant would do the right thing? How have they shown that they have taken or will take any precautions against the lynching of Summers? None; but they will excuse themselves on the ground of overwhelming force, as is usual.

It is said that there have been no mobs in Hardeman county, Sheriff Sammers says different. He alleges that some time ago he was compelled to lay out in the swamps of Hardeman county with two negro prisoners, in hiding from the mob, and that one of the negroes died from the exposure—and this before our governor. As to the disposition to lynch the murderer of William Lewark, how can it be said that there was no manifestation of the sort when men were at that very time scouring the country in search of the suspect. He was not lynched because he was not caught. in so far as time is concerned, excitement, etc., it is well known that the appetite is only whetted by its hunger, and that some of the most barbaric of lynchings have taken place long after the commission of the alleged crimes. It is the chronic lynching habit that tells; excitement is too often the end, not the means. The revolting circumstances admittedly obtain only in about 5 per cent of the crimes for which men are lynched in the South. 

Then, as to this remarkable statement:  "If found guilty he will not even be hung; for, under the laws of that state, his punishment will only be twenty-one years imprisonment!" O most liberal Tennessee! Most advanced of all the states! To have abolished the death penalty for murder in the first degree and substituted only twenty-one years imprisonment! Only another reason, if true, why this man will be lynched, for, according to their own testimony, it is the law's delays and the inadequacy of its punishments that is constantly put forward in extenuation of lynchings. Is Summers so great a favorite with the people of Tennessee that he will be permitted to escape?

The very respectable Pioneer Press looks down from its lofty position of immaculate purity and observes, that the circumstances of the killing having occurred in a house of ill-fame should moderate the sympathy of respectable  colored people for the alleged murderer. Does the Press assume that we are of such mental density and so morally perverted that we can not distinguish crime in color? That some people not of African descent confound color with crime is well known, but we deny the imputation. Why does not the venerable Pioneer Press in its animadversions take into account the looseness of the moral code as practiced in the South with regard to white men and negro women? It is universally held excusable for young men to sow their wild oats among negroes. And it nowhere appears from the case that this was a house of ill-fame, as we understand the term. Simply that this Lewark intruded himself by force and arms upon a colored man and woman, unmarried, seems to be the size of it. White people of the South, as a general thing, regard all negroes as socially equal, so that your point falls. Personally, I know of cases where black husbands have lost their lives insisting that white men keep away from their homes and the refusal of the law to interfere, and there are few of us living here in St. Paul from the South who cannot testify to like circumstances.

Negroes have no rights which white men are bound to respect seems to be the trend of decisions North and South. For the colored people of St. Paul it is safe to say that none of them has a personal interest in this man Summers, and that in common with the other citizens of this country we wish justice done. We manifest no desire to save an offender from the just deserts of his crime, but we do not believe that our governor is justified in sending Summers back, and we believe that the Pioneer Press has done us a great wrong  by the publication of the editorial referred to, and paved the way for a gross misconstruction of our motives and desires in this matter in the minds of the people of the state of Minnesota and of the great Northwest.

—Gustave B. Aldrich

Thank you for joining me and as always, I hope I leave you with something to ponder.

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