In November 1865 a group of 52 black delegates met in Charleston’s Zion Church to formulate a position regarding their future in the still uncertain world of the post-emancipation South. Their address invoked the language of the Declaration of Independence to claim full rights of citizenship for themselves, rights that were endangered by widespread southern “Black Codes.” The Black Codes were a series of laws introduced in the months after the war by the reconstituted state legislatures of the South. These laws were enacted to restrict the movements and employment possibilities of blacks regardless of whether they had been free or enslaved before the war?in essence to replace the constrictions of slavery.
FELLOW CITIZENS:—We have assembled as delegates representing the colored people of the State of South Carolina, in the capacity of State Convention, to confer together and to deliberate upon our intellectual, moral, industrial, civil, and political condition as affected by the great changes which have taken place in this State and throughout this whole country, and to devise ways and means which may, through the blessing of God, tend to our improvement, elevation, and progress; fully believing that our cause is one which commends itself to all good men throughout the civilized world; that it is the sacred cause of truth and righteousness; that it particularly appeals to those professing to be governed by that religion which teaches to “do unto all men as you would have them do unto you.”
These principles we conceive to embody the great duty of man to his fellow man; and, as men, we ask only to be included in a practical application of this principle.
We feel that the justness of our cause is sufficient apology for our course at this time. Heretofore we have had no avenues opened to us or our children—we have had no firesides that we could call our own; none of those incentives to work for the development of our minds and the aggrandizement of our race in common with other people. The measures which have been adopted for the development of white mens children have been denied to us and ours. The laws which have made white men great, have degraded us, because we were colored, and because we were reduced to chattel slavery. But now that we are freemen, now that we have been lifted up by the providence of God to manhood, we have resolved to come forward, and, like MEN, speak and act for ourselves. We fully recognize the truth of the maxim that “God helps those who help themselves.” In making this appeal to you, we adopt the language of the immortal Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal,” and that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the right of all; that taxation and representation should go together; that governments are to protect, not to destroy the rights of mankind; that the Constitution of the United States was formed to establish justice, to promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to all the people of this country; that resistance to tyrants is obedience to God?are American principles and maxims; and together they form the constructive elements of the American Government.
We think we fully comprehend and duly appreciate the principles and measures which compose this platform; and all that we desire or ask for is to be placed in a position that we could conscientiously and legitimately defend, with you, those principles against the surges of despotism to the last drop of our blood. We have not come together in battle array to assume a boastful attitude and to talk loudly of high-sounding principles or unmeaning platforms, nor do we pretend to any great boldness; for we know your wealth and greatness, and our poverty and weakness; and although we feel keenly our wrongs, still we come together, we trust, in a spirit of meekness and of patriotic good-will to all the people of the State. But yet it is some consolation to know (and it inspires us with hope when we reflect) that our cause is not alone the cause of five millions of colored men in this country, but we are intensely alive to the fact that it is also the cause of millions of oppressed men in other “parts of Gods beautiful earth,” who are now struggling to be free in the fullest sense of that word; and God and nature are pledged in its triumph. We are Americans by birth, and we assure you that we are Americans in feeling; and, in spite of all wrongs which we have long and silently endured in this country, we would still exclaim with a full heart, “O America! with all thy faults we love thee still.”
Breathes there a man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said—
“This is my own, my native land!”
Whose heart hath neer within him burned
As home his footsteps he hath turned,
From wandering in a foreign strand?
Thus we would address you, not as enemies, but as friends and fellow-countrymen, who desire to dwell among you in peace, and whose destinies are interwoven, and linked with those of the American people, and hence must be fulfilled in this country. As descendants of a race feeble and long oppressed, we might with propriety appeal to a great and magnanimous people like Americans, for special favors and encouragement, on the principle that the strong should aid the weak, the learned should teach the unlearned.
But it is for no such purposes that we raise our voices to the people of South Carolina on this occasion. We ask for no special privileges or peculiar favors. We ask only for even-handed Justice, or for the removal of such positive obstructions and disabilities as past, and the recent Legislators have seen fit to throw in our way, and heap upon us.
Without any rational cause or provocation on our part, of which we are conscious, as a people, we, by the action of your Convention and Legislature, have been virtually, and with few exceptions excluded from, first, the rights of citizenship, which you cheerfully accord to strangers, but deny to us who have been born and reared in your midst, who were faithful while your greatest trials were upon you, and have done nothing since to merit your disapprobation.
We are denied the right of giving our testimony in like manner with that of our white fellow-citizens, in the courts of the State, by which our persons and property are subject to every species of violence, insult and fraud without redress.
We are also by the present laws, not only denied the right of citizenship, the inestimable right of voting for those who rule over us in the land of our birth, but by the so-called Black Code we are deprived the rights of the meanest profligate in the country—the right to engage in any legitimate business free from any restraints, save those which govern all other citizens of this State.
You have by your Legislative actions placed barriers in the way of our educational and mechanical improvement; you have given us little or no encouragement to pursue agricultural pursuits, by refusing to sell to us lands, but organize societies to bring foreigners to your country, and thrust us out or reduce us to a serfdom, intolerable to men born amid the progress of American genius and national development.
Your public journals charge the freedmen with destroying the products of the country since they have been made free, when they know that the destruction of the products was brought about by the ravages of war of four years duration. How unjust, then, to charge upon the innocent and helpless, evils in which they had no hand, and which may be traced to where it properly belongs.
We simply desire that we shall be recognized as men; that we have no obstructions placed in our way; that the same laws which govern white men shall direct colored men; that we have the right of trial by a jury of our peers, that schools be opened or established for our children; that we be permitted to acquire homesteads for ourselves and children; that we be dealt with as others, in equity and justice.
We claim the confidence and good-will of all classes of men; we ask that the same chances be extended to us that freemen should demand at the hands of their fellow-citizens. We desire the prosperity and growth of this State and the well-being of all men, and shall be found ever struggling to elevate ourselves and add to the national character; and we trust the day will not be distant when you will acknowledge that by our rapid progress in moral, social, religious and intellectual development that you will cheerfully accord to us the high commendation that we are worthy, with you, to enjoy all political emoluments—when we shall realize the truth that “all men are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights,” and that on the American continent this is the right of all, whether he come from east, west, north or south; and, although complexions may differ, “a mans a man for a that.”
ZION CHURCH, Charleston, S. C., November 24, 1865.
Source: State Convention of the Colored People of South Carolina, Proceedings of the Colored People’s Convention of the State of South Carolina, Held in Zion Church, Charleston, November, 1865 (Charleston: South Carolina Leader Office, 1865), 23–26.