Antebellum Black Ethnology

Mia Bay. Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. Editor: John Hartwell Moore. Volume 1. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2008.

Antebellum black ethnology arose as a challenge to mainstream ethnology, the nineteenth-century “science of the races.” Most prevalent in the United States, the field of ethnology emerged in the 1830s and 1840s as white American scientists first began to study anatomy, craniology, and human development. At the time, human development was still understood in a religious framework, and these scientists sought to reconcile racial difference with biblical history in a way that led to new questions about the unity of the human family, and about the place of people of color within it. Now often known as “scientific racism,” this work focused on racial differences, and it invariably classified blacks and other people of color as inferior and innately distinct from white people. Accordingly, American ethnology, as put forth by white authors, lent support to proslavery apologists such as Josiah Nott (1804-1873), who drew on its arguments for black inferiority to support the perpetuation of slavery. Black Americans, however, countered with ethnological arguments of their own.

Antebellum black ethnology defended the status of black people in the human family and the scriptures, stressing that all the races of humanity descended from a shared ancestry. Among the nineteenth-century blacks who wrote and spoke about ethnology were a number of well-known figures such as Frederick Douglass (1817- 1895) and Martin Delany (1812-1885), as well as scores of more obscure black thinkers.

The Origins of Black Ethnology

In addressing ethnology in the 1850s, Delany and Douglass joined an already well-established tradition of black racial self-defense. Published African-American defenses of the capacities of the black race date back to the eighteenth-century, when African-Americans first confronted published arguments for black inferiority. Among the earliest arguments they encountered came from Thomas Jefferson. Writing in Notes on the State of Virginia (1789), Jefferson “advanced, as a suspicion only, that blacks whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time, are inferior to whites in the endowments of body and mind” (p. 262). Jefferson’s speculations were soon answered by an African-American contemporary named Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), a self-educated former slave who achieved considerable renown as a mathematician, astronomer, and surveyor. In a public letter to Jefferson written in 1792, Banneker stressed that “we are all of the same human family” and implored the founding father to “embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false opinions and ideas, which so generally prevails with respect to us” (Nash 1990, p. 178). Jefferson’s response to Banneker was cordial, but his views seem to have remained the same. In a private letter to a friend, Jefferson wrote “I have a long letter from Banneker, which shows him to have a mind of a very common stature indeed” (Bay 2000, p. 17).

Jefferson’s negative assessment of the capacities of the black race would be increasingly widely supported in the nineteenth century. Antiblack thought proliferated in both the North and South in the early decades of the nineteenth century, as the egalitarian spirit of the Revolutionary era ebbed and slavery became ever more entrenched in the South. Among southerners, theories of black inferiority were used to defend slavery from the small but active group of northern abolitionists who began to challenge the morality of slavery. Meanwhile, in the North, blacks achieved the freedom mandated under the Revolutionary-era gradual emancipation laws, only to find themselves despised by many northern whites. As the North’s free black population burgeoned, whites there expressed little enduring support for African-American emancipation and quickly came to view the poverty and lack of education common among free blacks as evidence of the limitations of their race. Black ethnology thus had its beginning as African Americans mobilized to defend themselves from critics in both the North and South.

Such self-defenses became ever more necessary as the nineteenth century progressed. By the 1820s, the traditional environmentalist understanding of racial differences as the product of the distinctive climates and environments that nurtured the world’s different peoples had begun to give way to new questions about human unity—and about whether all humans really descended from the same ancestors. In an era when the transmission of physical traits from generation to generation was still something of a mystery, and when the time span covered by the scriptures was still thought to record the entire human history, environmentalism posed a number of scientific conundrums when it came to explaining racial difference. The most mysterious had to do with the brevity of human history: How had human beings developed such divergent physical characteristics over the few thousand years covered in the scriptures? Human physical characteristics did not change all that rapidly from one generation to the next, no matter what the influence of climate was. In the 1830s and 1840s these issues were taken up by the American School of Ethnology, a group of prominent American scientists led by Samuel Morton (1799-1851) of Philadelphia, who would ultimately argue that the races of humanity were the product of polygenesis, or separate creations.

Polygenesis versus Monogenesis In Black and White

In polygenesis, African Americans encountered a galling new and scientifically authoritative theory of black inferiority, which literally wrote them out of traditional accounts of human history. Morton and other members of the American School rejected the time-honored mono-genetic understanding of human development favored by earlier American thinkers such as Samuel Stanhope Smith (1751-1819). Whereas Smith held that men and women of all races descended from Adam and Eve, and attributed the diversity of human populations to environmental influences, Morton questioned whether the different human races had common ancestors. A craniologist, Morton researched the skull as a measure of human capacity and assumed that, studied across time, skull measurements could be used to trace the history of human development and racial differences. Accordingly, Morton’s research was based on a collection of 900 skulls, both ancient and modern and from all over the world. The measurements from his collection, he said, showed a pattern of racial differences across time in which whites had the largest skulls and blacks the smallest, and other people of color ranged in between. These persistent differences between the races led him to conclude that racial distinctions were far too ancient and enduring to be the product of environmental forces. Instead, he maintained, the racially distinct cranial measurements seen in the populations of ancient Egypt, early America, and the modern United States provided irrefutable evidence that the races did not share the same ancestors. There must have been more than one genesis: Only a polygenesis could explain human diversity.

Twenty-first-century scientists have rejected creationism in favor of evolution, and they have also proved that Morton’s measurements were riddled with errors. Moreover, even in his own day, the theory of polygenesis was by no means universally accepted among whites, many of whom greeted the notion of multiple creations as rank heresy. Still, polygenesis horrified African-Americans, especially as they saw it achieving increasing scientific prominence over time. Black intellectuals mobilized to reject this new theory with an ethnology of their own, which enlarged upon previous African-American defenses of the African race with increasingly detailed discussions of the origins and character of the races of humans. Benjamin Robert Lewis (1802-1859), a Maine resident, wrote the first book-length work on ethnology by a black author—a work called Light and Truth: Collected from the Bible and the Ancient and Modern History Containing the Universal History of the Colored and Indian Races; from the Creation of the World to the Present Time (1844). Lewis stressed that Adam and Eve were people of color, as were the Egyptians and many of the heroes of the ancient world—including Plato and Julius Caesar. Lewis’s enthusiastic account of the history of the colored race was overblown enough to make the black nationalist Martin Delany worry that Light and Truth did little more than reverse the errors of white ethnologists such as George Glidden, “who makes all ancient black men white… this colored man makes all ancient great white men black” (Bay 2000, p. 45). But in the years to come, other black writers, including well-known figures such as Delany, would produce more measured critiques of white ethnology.

The African-American ministers Hosea Easton (1779-1837) and James Pennington (1807-1870), for example, both drew on their knowledge of the scriptures to underscore the unity of the human race. Born free in 1779, Easton led the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Hartford, Connecticut, until his early death in 1837—just six weeks after he published A Treatise on the Intellectual Character, and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States (1837). Easton’s Treatise defended the history and origins of the black race with a detailed reading of the history of the races as recorded in the scriptures. Like Lewis, he underscored that the African race descended from Adam and Eve, and he traced the race’s ancestry down from Noah’s son Ham, who settled Africa and Egypt. It was Ham’s children, he maintained, rather than the “savage” European descendents of Ham’s brother Japhet, who carried “the blessings of civilization to Greece” (p. 10). Despite this unfavorable comparison, Easton rejected any notion of innate distinctions between the races. Variations in complexion and hair texture among different groups, he argued, were “casual or incidental,” and any racial deficiencies seen in African-Americans were caused by slavery, which, he believed, created physical and mental deformities that could pass from mother to child. In addition to defending the lineage and innate capacities of the black race, Easton also presented a searing critique of white theories about black inferiority, which he described as “the production of European philosophy, bearing date [originating] with European slavery” (p. 42). White American complaints about blacks were little more than a “plea of justification” for slavery, he contended. “What could better accord with the object of this nation with reference to blacks than to teach their little ones that the Negro is part monkey?” (p. 42).

Writing in 1841, James Pennington, who had escaped from slavery to become a Congregationalist minister, made a similar case for the common origins of the human family and the illustrious history of the African race. “The arts and sciences had origins in our ancestors,” he wrote of the Egyptians and Ethiopians, and “from them have flown forth to the world.” Pennington took on not only polygenesis, but also some older theories of black inferiority that located its causes within the Bible. “We are not the seed of Cain as the stupid say,” he wrote, making short work of one such theory (p. 7). Cain’s offspring perished in the deluge. However, he devoted more time to debunking the notion that black people labored under the Curse of Ham, a theory that held considerable currency in the white South, and complicated African-American claims to Hamitic ancestry. The idea of a curse originated in a confusing biblical story (Genesis 9:20-25) in which Noah condemns Ham’s son Canaan to be “a servant of servants” after Ham comes across Noah lying naked and drunk in his tent. Long associated with slavery in Western culture, the story of the Curse of Ham was widely applied to blacks after the development of racial slavery in the Americas. However, as Pennington points out, such interpretations of Ham’s curse do not mesh with the scriptural record. The curse was on Canaan rather than his brother Cush, who settled Ethiopia. Moreover, the story seemed dubious as a justification for the slavery of any group, as it required God to empower the ill-tempered curses of a drunken patriarch: “Is the spirit of wine the spirit of God?” (p. 18)

African Americans also tried to challenge white ethnology on more scientific ground. The most scientifically accomplished African-American to do so was James McCune Smith (1813-1865), America’s first black M.D. Rejected by American medical schools on account of his race, Smith received his M.D. in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1837. An abolitionist and physician, Smith was a prolific essayist, and he used his medical training to challenge the ethnological arguments made by the white scientists of his day. In a series of essays published during the 1830s and 1840s, Smith mobilized data drawn from his medical practice to reject the idea that blacks and whites were anatomically distinct, and to refute the popular belief that African Americans were more short-lived than white Americans. An environmentalist, like most blacks who wrote on ethnology, Smith believed that racial differences were neither ancient nor immutable. Rather, he saw them as the result of the diverse climates that nurtured different human groups. He also contended that, under the influence of their nation’s temperate climate, black Americans would eventually become indistinguishable from whites, that “the Ethiopian can change his skin.”

Likewise, Martin Delany also approached ethnology with scientific training. Raised in Pennsylvania, Delany apprenticed with a doctor there and was subsequently admitted to Harvard Medical School. However, he was forced out of Harvard after only one semester by white medical students who opposed the enrollment of African Americans in their program. Nonetheless, during his subsequent career as a political activist and writer, Delany returned to the study of science, presenting several discussions of ethnology in his written works. In The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States (1852), Delany rejected the idea of polygenesis, but he did not rule out important racial differences. He contended, in fact, that the African race was “physically superior to any living race of men” (p. 36). Further expanding on these distinctions in the postbellum era, he published Principia of Ethnology: The Origin of Races and Color (1879). A detailed ethnological monograph, Principia underscored the different historical records of blacks and whites—whom Delany saw as a naturally aggressive people. Delany attributed both physical and temperamental distinctions among human races to the varying amounts of concentrated rouge, or “pigmentum nigrum,” in the skin that distinguished the descendants of Ham, Japhet, and Shem (p. 23).

The careers of Smith and Delany illustrate the immense difficulties African-Americans faced in gaining access to the kind of scientific training and credentials that might have allowed nineteenth-century African-American writings on ethnology to be taken seriously by mainstream scientists. By and large unschooled in science, African Americans could offer little concrete evidence to counter the data offered by white scientists such as Morton. Most of the African Americans who wrote on ethnology had to rely on the scriptures for evidence that all people were “of one blood.” Still, from the early twenty-first century vantage point, nineteenth-century black ethnology was only a little less scientific than the findings of the American School of Ethnology. Both were products of an era in which science and religion were not yet distinct. The theories of poly-genesis and monogenesis alike mixed biblical and scientific thought in ways that made scriptural exegesis a scientific activity. Moreover, in the long run, the environmentalism theories of human development defended by African-American authors have proven far less preposterous in the light of modern understandings of human evolution than the American School’s arguments against the common ancestry of the human species.

In the nineteenth century, however, black authors could bring little scientific or cultural authority to their arguments, and they therefore made little headway in challenging the findings of the American School. Morton’s racial rankings, by contrast, “outlived the theory of separate creations, and were reprinted widely during the nineteenth century as irrefutable ‘hard’ data on the mental worth of the races” (Gould 1981, p. 53). As the abolitionist and fugitive slave Frederick Douglass observed in reference to mainstream antebellum ethnology, “the wish is the father of the thought,” by which he meant that white scientists who lived in a nation that tolerated racial slavery needed to see black people as inferior, and they thus found data to support their presumptions (p. 500).

Douglass addressed the subject of ethnology in a popular lecture titled “The Races of Man,” which he delivered frequently during the 1840s and 1850s, and also in a more learned discourse, “The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Concerned” (1854). In the latter volume, he marshaled the full range of scientific and scriptural arguments presented by previous black authors to affirm “the oneness of the human family,” defend the historical record of the African race, and reject the American School’s “profound discoveries of ethnological science.” These “Southern pretenders to science” were little more than spokesmen for slavery, he wrote. “When men oppress their fellow men: the oppressor ever finds in the characterization of the oppressed, their justification” (p. 510).

The antebellum black ethnology produced by Frederick Douglass and others is perhaps more impressive for it prescient critique of mainstream white science than it is for its defense of monogenesis, environmentalism, and black accomplishments in Africa and Egypt—which sound a little quaint to the modern reader. But black ethnology’s staunch defense of the origins and accomplishments of the African race was considered crucial by antebellum black authors, who worried that theories such as polygenesis would perpetuate slavery and foster a belief in black inferiority among blacks and whites alike. Accordingly, antebellum black ethnology should be appreciated not only within the context of early African-American scholarship on science, the scriptures, and human history—all of which it engages—but also as a chapter in black resistance to racism. By rejecting and refuting the mainstream white-authored ethnology that branded black people as a race distinct in origin and inferior by nature, the African Americans who wrote on ethnology helped provide an intellectual foundation for the African-American emancipation struggles of the era.