19 Pages

Black Americans and the Boer War, 1899–1902

Willard B. Gatewood, Jr. The heightened race consciousness of Negro Americans in the last decade of the nineteenth century was nowhere more evident than in their responses to the imperialistic enterprises of Western nations, especially those of the United States, among “ darker races” in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Confronted by a rising tide of segregation and violence at home, black citizens manifested considerable skepti­ cism toward policies of intervention and expansion justified on the grounds of helping “ little brown brothers.” Many questioned whether the planting of the Stars and Stripes in Hawaii would benefit the dark-skinned inhabitants of the islands and suspected that military intervention in Cuba would result in substituting the tyranny of the “ American color-line” for the physical brutality of the Spaniards. In 1899 when the United States became involved in a war to crush the so-called Filipino Insurrection, the black Americans’ misgivings about imperialism hardened into belligerent opposition. Individuals, organizations, and a sizeable segment of the Negro press openly sympathized with the Filipinos, whom they described as “ our colored cousins.” If black Americans detected a relationship between the upsurge of racism at home and the nation’s imperialistic forays in the Caribbean and Pacific, they also recognized that colorphobia, rather than being a problem peculiar to the United States, existed among whites throughout the Western world. The eleven Afro-Americans who attended the first Pan-African Conference held in London on July 23-25, 1900, joined their fellow delegates in studying the im­ pact of colonialism on “ the darker races of Africa and Asia.” Among the actions of the conference was the presentation of a

memorial to the British government protesting acts of injustice against Her Majesty’s black subjects in South Africa. 1

For a decade prior to the Pan-African Conference Negroes in the United States had followed closely the colonial struggles in Africa. The black press regularly published reports concerning the expansion of British control over the southern and central portions of the conti­ nent, and occasionally included correspondence from Afro-American travelers and missionaries in the area. A “ Congress on Africa” held at Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta in 1895 also stimulated interest among black Americans in the “dark continent.” Participants in this conference, like Afro-Americans in general, “ displayed a broad range of views and attitudes about Africa, many of them laden with considerable ambivalence.” 2 Such ambivalence became all the more obvious as black spokesmen attempted to thwart the back-toAfrica campaign waged in the 1890’s by Bishop Henry M. Turner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.3 The fact that Turner’s movement coincided with the colonial race in Africa meant that dis­ cussions of European imperialism in the black press often appeared to be filled with contradictions. Black Americans alternately praised imperialism in Africa and warned about the dangers of white con­ trol over the continent. But as one scholar has noted,4 these two arguments were postulated within wholly different contexts. Their favorable comments on imperialism generally referred to its civilizing influence upon the “ primitive savages” while allusions to white domination were designed to discourage the Negro citizen who was contemplating emigration to Africa as a means of finding “ surround­ ings in harmony with his color.”